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Detroit Bridge Battle Pits City Residents Against Each Other

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DETROIT -- The battle for a bridge over the Detroit River has been fierce. On one side of the fight stands a billionaire who does not want to see his monopoly on international freight traffic challenged. On the other is a headstrong governor who does not want to see his favorite infrastructure project killed. The casualties along the way have been the people of Detroit, stuck in the center of a bruising, sometimes racially-charged debate over how to revive the region's economy.

Although a state Senate committee voted down his plan for a new bridge, Gov. Rick Snyder's public pronouncements have indicated the battle may continue to rage for quite some time. Snyder and many of Michigan's leading business interests would like to see a bridge called the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) built across the Detroit River to Canada. The NITC would add a second span not far from the Ambassador Bridge, which is privately owned. Its advocates say the new bridge is crucial to the region's infrastructure and necessary to ease truck traffic congestion on the Ambassador. But thus far their efforts have come to naught as they've run up against the Ambassador's billionaire owner and his political influence.

The future of the metropolitan region's economy is held hostage as the state, and Canada, await a resolution. "We've got a lot of optimism that Detroit could be set on a path to success," said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, a Republican. Building a new bridge to expand freight trucking capacity in the state's largest city wouldn't be a magic bullet for the region's economy, he added, but "the last thing we need are more people avoiding Detroit" because of traffic congestion.

The owner of the Ambassador Bridge, Manuel "Matty" Moroun, has a remarkable talent for creating strange bedfellows among both his enemies and his friends. Snyder, a Republican who used to serve as CEO of a venture capital firm, has been pushing hard for a second bridge to be built, partially with public money, just downriver of the Ambassador. On his side is organized labor, the Big Three automakers and a who's who of Michigan's businesses and Chambers of Commerce.

On Moroun's side are a hodgepodge group of opponents of the NITC. They support Moroun's argument that his Detroit International Bridge Company (DIBC) should be the one to build a "twin" span for the Ambassador. They argue that a "government" bridge (which would be built in concert with a private investor) represents an unfair attempt to undermine Moroun's business.

(The Detroit International Bridge Company declined to comment for this article. "At the request of our PR firm, we are not taking any interviews on this subject. As of now, the issue is dead and we don't want to add any attention to a dead issue," said Jennifer Dennis, a spokeswoman for the company.)

The state legislators who voted down Snyder's plan for a second bridge on Oct. 20 are just the tip of the iceberg. Moroun gave 45 different candidates for the state legislature a total of $565,000 in the last election cycle and contributed to the campaigns of six of the seven members of the state Senate Economic Development Committee. Moroun has also spent another $4.7 million on TV ad buys, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

It is not just legislators who have been wooed. The Koch brothers-backed group Americans for Prosperity supports Moroun. AFP says it backs Moroun because it backs private enterprise -- his bridge was privately built and remains privately maintained. The New Black Panther Nation/New Marcus Garvey Movement says it supports Moroun out of fears the NITC would reduce money available for welfare payments.

"We are nationalist, African centered, Pan-Africanist in our views," said Minister Malik Shabazz, who has accepted money from Moroun's bridge company. "We don't know no goddamned Tea Party. And as far as the Koch Brothers, I despise them, their actions. But every now and then, the devil may do the right thing."

"I guess we agree on the end result, which is stopping the bridge. But I think our objections to the bridge are based on very different facts," said Annie Patnaude of Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, which has also received money from the Moroun family. "That's politics."

Both AFP and Shabazz say pro-bridge leaders in the Detroit neighborhood where the NITC would touch down, Delray, would misuse a proposed "community benefits agreement." Delray is poor, mostly black and Latino, and the agreement is meant to blunt the negative impact of the bridge's placement.

Within the city, proponents of the community benefits agreement say it will ensure that however successful the new bridge is, it will have a positive impact on its host community. In the meantime, said State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat who represents Delray, the new bridge has been delayed in no small part because the bridge company and its allies "have spent millions of dollars injecting race" into the debate.

WHAT CAN BE DONE FOR DELRAY

Just a few years ago, debates over the new bridge centered around where it should be built and whether it would attract enough traffic to justify a government subsidy. When Canada offered to pay Michigan's $550 million contribution for the new bridge in April 2010, the question of where the bridge will touch down, and what the surrounding area would get in return, emerged instead as a central point of contention.

In 2005, a binational commission was appointed to look into building a supplement for the Ambassador Bridge. After four years of study, the bridge planners issued their final environmental statement on placement: Delray. This neighborhood in Southwest Detroit has long been neglected, according to a pastor in the area.

Kevin Casillas, the reverend at Delray's First Latin American Baptist Church, said the area's residential base had been eroded over the years by "many, many projects, like the I-75, the expansion of the water treatment plant." Those projects "kept on cutting out, cutting out portions of the neighborhood, and eventually the city just ignored it more and more as a place for residents."

Tlaib, who represents Delray in the state House, says it is a vibrant community with great potential that has simply been ignored.

"Over 45 percent of the community is Latino," Tlaib said. Since the 2000 Census, "We lost less population than any part of the city. And I give credit to our traction to new immigrants that come to the state of Michigan."

"But there's also challenges," she acknowledged on a van ride through the area, which is pockmarked with vacant lots. The occasional signs of life are not all positive for Delray's residents: factories belch pollution, and Tlaib cries out in surprise as a semi almost sideswipes a group of children waiting for a bus.

"When I go read to the children, I'll ask the kids, 'Raise your hands if you have asthma.' About a third of the kids will raise their hands -- and it's a third-grade class," Tlaib said. According to the Skillman Foundation, Delray's rate of preventable hospitalization of children for asthma is the highest in the city.

Tlaib and Casillas say they realized their poor, politically uninfluential neighborhood would never be able to stop a bridge supported by the Michigan and Canadian governments. So they made a strategic calculation: They would support the new bridge, but only on the condition that its financial backers provided something to Delray in return, in the form of a community benefits agreement.

Tlaib and her allies in Delray, who have formed the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, admit they are also motivated at least in part by anger at the actions of Moroun and the DIBC.

Moroun, they say, has dramatically underinvested in Southwest Detroit in the three decades since he bought the Ambassador. As tractor trailers spew diesel gas into the neighborhood, the bridge rakes in an estimated $60 million a year. The DIBC is currently being held in contempt of court for failing to complete a highway connection that could keep trucks off of city streets. Until this highway "Gateway Project" is finished, however, a semi comes off the bridge from Canada every 2.5 seconds. When one does, it often rolls through Southwest Detroit, adding pollution to what is already emitted by the area's factories.

Instead of working to complete the Gateway, critics say Moroun has taken only superficial steps to give back to the community: sponsoring a snow festival here, a marathon there.

Moroun and his family, said Casillas, have a "turf mentality": "Grab and buy and occupy all that you can, ignoring your neighbors and the impact on them."

WHO BENEFITS?

Community benefits agreements have become an increasingly popular component of large infrastructure projects in the United States over the last decade. They provide developers a chance to show they are giving back to their host communities. But critics say they also offer a chance to buy off opponents.

Opponents of the NITC have painted members of the Community Benefits Coalition as sellouts looking to profit from Delray's misery. Moroun paid Dick Morris, the former Bill Clinton pollster, to conduct a loaded poll about Detroiters looking for "golf courses, swimming pools and community centers" through a community benefits agreement.

That poll inflamed Delray community members, who said they wanted no such thing, but it didn't stop the new bridge's opponents from hitting similar themes. Americans for Prosperity sent out a mailer in early November warning about the "$100 million in Welfare-style 'community benefits' giveaways" building a new bridge would entail.

Michigan state Sen. Tupac Hunter, a Democrat, supports a new bridge on the condition that it include a community benefits agreement. He said that in the state legislature, where the divide between those representing 83 percent black Detroit and those representing the 79 percent white rest of Michigan runs deep, such statements have an unmistakable racial connotation.

"It was used to, I think, play to really negative, very base sentiments that unfortunately too many people in the Republican caucus have," he said. "They played the race card. They threw out things like 'welfare by a different name.'"

Patnaude of AFP is quick to note that her group never used the phrase "swimming pools" in any of its mailings. "Our members are concerned about the large amount of money that gets sent to Detroit without any results to show for it," she said. "But it's actually not racially charged. I can't believe anyone would accuse us of that."

"I don't think they used direct racial terms," said Hunter. "But, okay, Detroit is majority black, Southwest Detroit is black and Latino, and when you reduce what we were fighting for in terms of community protections to 'welfare by another name,' my deductive reasoning skills are enough to understand where they're coming from."

'NO BRIDGE CARD, NO BRIDGE'

At the same time Moroun's allies were throwing out inflammatory arguments about the community benefits agreement, he was making friends with black faith leaders in Detroit. They charge that the members of the Community Benefits Coalition shouldn't be speaking for Detroit at all, or at least not when they're trying to get a handout.

If a new bridge is built, its opponents say, it will simply send more trucks through Southwest Detroit and create more community problems, like the epidemic asthma Tlaib mentioned. What's more, because a new bridge would need acres and acres of land for its tower and a customs plaza, it would also require people in Delray to give up their homes. An estimated 700 residents would be displaced by the NITC.

Shabazz of the New Black Panther Movement is a huge, telegenic man whose presence cuts a flamboyant throwback to the Panthers of yore. Over dinner in a downtown soul food restaurant, he acknowledged that he has accepted thousands of dollars from the Bridge Company. But his organization has used that money, he said, to clean up crack houses and compensate supporters who have attended protests against a new bridge.

"You know what these poor Negroes did?" he asked. "They went and they bought groceries. ... I'm not ashamed of that."

Shabazz lives in East Detroit, far from Delray, which has prompted Tlaib and others to accuse him of meddling to earn a quick buck. She said she admires the work Shabazz has done with his neighborhood patrols, but in this case and others he is nothing more than a "professional protester." Shabazz, in turn, calls people like the Reverend Jeffrey Baker of Delray's African Methodist Episcopal Church "Reverend Flim-Flam" and an "Uncle Tom."

"We're interested in what's best for Detroit, not a block of Detroit, but Detroit," Shabazz said. Echoing a frequent Bridge Company talking point, he said he was worried that if the new bridge failed to attract enough toll traffic, it could fail and leave the state on the hook, taking away money for things like roads and what he is really concerned about: welfare for poor mothers.

Shabazz's rallying cry has become "No Bridge Cards, no bridge" -- a reference to the state's electronic benefit transfer card. (Americans for Prosperity disagrees with him about Bridge Cards.)

The Reverend Horace Sheffield III, pastor of New Destiny Baptist Church, also opposes a new bridge. Like Shabazz, he does not live in Delray, but he dismissed that point, saying, "I have a right to go wherever." He also acknowledged that he has taken advertising dollars from Moroun to support his radio show on WCHB. Sheffield said money wasn't what counted in the bridge debate: "I take people at face value."

Interviewed in his humble office at the Detroit Association of Black Organizations, which he heads, Sheffield said his concern with the new bridge was simple: "I think there are far more important things." The money Canada has pledged the bridge is not transferable to Detroit's school system, for example, but he wishes it were. Like Shabazz, he said he also worries that were the NITC to fail it would somehow be hung around the city's financial neck. Both men note that Governor Snyder has never promised that the estimated 10,000 jobs that would be created during the new bridge's construction would go to Detroiters.

AMERICANS FOR PROSPERITY MOVES IN

Americans for Prosperity is opposed to a community benefits agreement, arguing that it's just another government intrusion in private enterprise. Yet even while opposing community benefits for Delray, it has tried, and failed, to paint itself as a friend of Southwest Detroit, going so far as to release a promotional video about the dangers of land acquisition for the new bridge.


Given that Delray residents typically vote Democratic, arch-conservative AFP was probably never going to be popular in the area. But the group made its image far worse in June when it flyered the low-income area near where the new bridge would be built with fake "EVICTION" notices. Those signs, AFP says, were meant to draw attention to the fact that the new bridge would require residents to sell their homes.

A media firestorm over AFP's attempt to drum up neighborhood opposition to a new bridge ensued. The outfit was depicted as hamhanded at best, heartless at worst.

"Obviously some people were quite upset by it," said AFP's Patnaude. "If you read the actual copy, it's fairly non-controversial in my opinion. We actually quoted directly from the legislation itself." (AFP was unable to direct HuffPost to any of its members in Southwest Detroit to comment for this story.)

Arguments like those fail to convince some residents of Southwest Detroit. The worst part of the whole episode, said Reverend Baker, was the look on his parishioners' faces when they told him about the flyers.

"It was all up and down the street of my church," he said. "The senior members were really just thrown for a loop, because they didn't totally understand it, they didn't know what was going on. Only thing they saw was that they were about to lose their house."

THE PARABLE OF THE BAIT SHOP

Moroun's allies acknowledge that he has not always been the best shepherd for Southwest Detroit. One episode in particular, however, seems to contradict the bridge company's argument that a competing bridge downriver would represent an assault on private enterprise. As a result of the bridge company's own construction plans, a small business near the Ambassador Bridge was choked off from its customers -- and had to sue to get compensation.

Dean and Rita Aytes ran the Lafayette Bait and Tackle shop just off the Detroit River for years. It was a convenient place to stop for fishers looking to angle in the public Riverside Park just down the road. Their trade was fine but unglamorous, and they seemed to be doing alright -- until the shop had the misfortune of being right where Moroun would like to put the foundation of his own second bridge, what he calls a "twin" span for the Ambassador.

The Aytes's shop was in the bridge company's way. So the DIBC decided to simply cut off public roads that lead to their building, leaving a single, confusing connection for cars to get in and out. Fearful that he would wake up one day to find his bait shop gone, Dean Aytes took to sleeping inside it overnight -- braving the cold Detroit winter with little more than a blanket.

"Our clients were literally shivering to death," said Bill Goodman, lawyer for the Aytes's in their lawsuit against the bridge company.

Patnaude, of Americans for Prosperity, the champion for private industry, said she had not heard of the bait shop's story. "I'm not that familiar with the bait shop," she said. "I do know that the Ambassador Bridge was built without the use of eminent domain."

Eventually, the Aytes's and the bridge settled the lawsuit, which claimed the bridge company had unfairly restricted the bait shop's business. Moroun and the DIBC forked over money -- the exact amount is confidential -- and some in the press treated the whole saga as something of a redemption tale for Moroun. Goodman said he was pleased with the eventual settlement but disappointed that it took so long to secure.

"They assumed they had the power of government or power greater than government to do whatever they wanted in that area," Goodman said. "Once they got sued, they responded appropriately, is what I would say. But this process was a long process of strangulation of these peoples' business and lives. And the only way they were able to get the attention of the Morouns was to file a lawsuit."

The Aytes's ordeal is just one example of the uncertainty the battle over a second Detroit River bridge has caused Southwest Detroiters. Some residents in Delray who live where the NITC would be built don't know whether they should bother making home improvements if they might have to sell their houses to developers in a couple years. Americans for Prosperity and bridge opponents say that is reason enough to cancel the NITC. Supporters say it is a good reason to get on with building the new bridge.

In the meantime, the DIBC keeps collecting its tolls from the traffic over the Ambassador. With no immediate competition, Moroun can run his bridge as he likes.

A new bridge -- with a community benefits agreement -- has "so much potential ... to really impact people's lives," said Casillas, the reverend at First Latin American Baptist in Delray. Moroun, he said, seems to have adopted a strategy of delay and of manipulation. "It's just like, 'Here, I'll throw this pocket change here and give a couple thousand over here to Malik [Shabazz] to have him do something that'll put me in a positive light."

Casillas accuses Moroun and DIBC of playing a game with the bridge. "Almost like it's a big chess game, and they're my little pawns, my pawns for me to get my king into a nicer situation."

READ MORE: New Bridge Proposed Between Detroit And Canada A Prisoner To History

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