The big Super Bowl winner: Detroit!

Take a poll this morning, and most of us will know the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl last night. But they’re not the only big winner today; no, the host city of Detroit is perhaps the biggest winner of all. I can’t recall a city that has gained so much from hosting a big event. Detroit – the U.S.’s poorest big city – was in the news almost every day leading up to the Super Bowl. Millions of dollars were spent to get the city ready, and there was much talk about the city’s recent progress. Many people who heard these positive messages may have said to themselves, “Is this the Detroit I know?”

I was in Detroit a number of weeks ago, and I could see both the decay that has set in over many years and the pockets of renewal that have taken shape. At each TV commercial break last night, ABC showed Detroit aglow – not with riots or acrimonious political debates that have been big storylines for the city, but with the lights of its skyline all lit up. The collective lights of the community demonstrated a new spirit now evolving in Detroit.

Oftentimes, when a city takes on a big event, people see it as a panacea for all their ills. But not in Detroit; not this time. I was struck how many times I heard officials and residents of Detroit say that its progress had begun in earnest before the Super Bow and that much work remains once the tourists go home.

Renewal – whether in individuals, neighborhoods, or communities – does not come all at once. Never has and never will. Check out communities that have renewed themselves and you will see a process that unfolded with fits and starts over an extended period of time. You see small pockets of change which started the process forward, then rippled out, and eventually those ripples started to touch and create new norms, shared values, and new collaborations. Ultimately, the collective narrative of the community shifts to something more positive.

Unfortunately, I find that officials sell one-time events as the quick fix for longer term issues, peddling false hope that the event alone will transform the town. You can see this when communities undertake behemoth economic development initiatives, tout the building of new arts centers, or hang banners from street signs proclaiming renewal.

This is why The Harwood Institute places so much emphasis on community rhythms (what we call the five stages of community life). The framework helps communities see where they are in their development process; be ruthlessly strategic about the right set of interventions to foster progress; and to set realistic expectations as well as clear benchmarks.

What was striking to me about Detroit’s use of the Super Bowl is that the community used it as an opportunity to “consolidate” its hard-earned victories of the recent past and as a “catalyst” to springboard the community forward to the next phase of its work. That’s good news.

So, on this Monday morning, I see Detroit as the big winner.