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Data Driven Leadership: A Q&A with Mayor Kurt Metzger

Kurt Metzger-Mayor of Pleasant Ridge
Kurt Metzger-Mayor of Pleasant Ridge - David Lewinski Photography
Kurt Metzger ran against Santa Claus and won. It's a trivial piece in the tale of Metzger's campaign for mayor of Pleasant Ridge, but how often does one get to talk about a Santa take-down?
 
The true spirit of the story is how Metzger, who's lived in little Pleasant Ridge for 26 years and worked in Detroit for more years than that, plans to show how two very different cities are connected to each other, and all the others communities around and in between. As mayor - and as the longtime data guru for metro Detroit and the tri-state region - Metzger will push for a regional approach that he says will make Detroit and Michigan healthier, and put divided local cities on the same team to compete nationally.
 
Think Raleigh-Durham, the Washington, DC-Virginia, greater Pittsburgh, metro Boston, Memphis-Nashville. 
 
Metzger worked for the U.S. Census Bureau in Detroit for years, then ran the Michigan Metropolitan Information Center at Wayne State University before founding Data Driven Detroit five years ago. He was into regionalism long before it was a buzzword, and sometimes found himself the lone voice in urging the use of data and numbers to treat economic ills.
 
There may be contradiction in a big picture guy who's worked in Detroit since 1975 overseeing a little Oakland County city – population 2,544 over .58 square miles – that's viewed as an exclusive, bucolic community sandwiched between larger and edgier Ferndale and Royal Oak. But Metzger sees Pleasant Ridge, which has Woodward Avenue and its connection to regional mass transit running through it, as a cog in the wheel of regional cooperation.
 
As mayor, Metzger plans to use his way with numbers – and his connections to many of the region's decision-makers – for the good of Pleasant Ridge and the greater good of metro Detroit and Michigan.
 
He believes there is great potential in marketing metro Detroit as a region and joining forces to overcome its more negative attributes. To wit, Metzger and Data Driven Detroit are currently working on a project with Quicken Loans Founder Dan Gilbert to identify Detroit's abandoned and blighted properties so that they can be quickly demolished and redeveloped.
 
As he proclaimed on Facebook after being sworn in after besting an incumbent city commissioner who was anointed by the 20-year outgoing mayor: "That gavel felt real good! I plan to wield it for the good of Pleasant Ridge and the good of the Detroit region!!!"
 
From Mae's, a standout breakfast spot in metro Detroit and one of fewer than 10 businesses in Pleasant Ridge, he spoke about being a reluctant mayoral candidate, the anti-regionalism tone of the campaign and legislation to promote shared services and such. He also expressed relief that his opponent, even after a prickly campaign that ended in a 53-47 percent vote, put aside politics and agreed to pull on the red velvet suit, boots and long white beard to play Santa once again for locals.
 
How can little Pleasant Ridge play a part in regionalism and does what happens here really affect larger cities?

METZGER: My role is to look out for Pleasant Ridge but not exclude everyone else. What's important to people in Pleasant Ridge, or anywhere, is quality of life. As the region changes we will change too. We'll be fine in Pleasant Ridge, but how can we get better as everyone else gets better? What does the quality of life for our residents mean beyond our boundaries? We should be thinking about growing the pie. 
 
This bigger vision involves talking to Ferndale, working more closely with them, with Royal Oak, Huntington Woods. I hope I can to talk to (newly elected Detroit Mayor Mike) Duggan. I know there's a difference in size, but there's something to be gained by coming together. I want to talk to (Oakland County executive L. Brooks) Patterson and (Macomb County executive) Mark Hackel. He really gets that we're all in this together. It's about being open to bigger thinking, to understanding that as the region grows Pleasant Ridge will be pulled around the curve with it. It's difficult though for folks who tend to be more parochial.
 
How could lawmakers make regional cooperation attractive or push cities to operate more cost-effectively?

Urban growth boundaries are one way. You force growth into the core by putting money into infrastructure improvements and repairs to the core rather than spending so much money in the exurbs. Also, the Michigan Municipal League is looking more at place matters kind of stuff. They've recognized the importance of place. They get region. I do believe there are opportunities to create legislation to promote collaboration. It can very difficult for me talking about regionalism and regional collaboration. I've stayed away from consolidation. It's very difficult with 141 communities in the tri-county area and I live in the smallest one, and 88 school districts and all the replication. I give Gov. Snyder credit for the incentives and grants that encourage consolidation and shared services.
 
Regionalism turned into a dirty word in the campaign, didn't it? It was somewhat of a scare tactic, would you say?
 
It was. It did. In my professional life I had seen that Pleasant Ridge didn't even have a seat at the table. I would go to meetings and say I was from Pleasant Ridge and people would say, ‘What's going on?" Pleasant Ridge is never at the table.' So when I decided to campaign I said Pleasant Ridge may be small, but we need to have a larger voice. We need to be part of the talks about regional cooperation. All of a sudden what I heard was the other side saying Kurt wants to get rid of Pleasant Ridge, annex Pleasant Ridge, open the (swimming) pool up to everybody. Watch out Kurt wants to get rid of the Pleasant Ridge we know and love. What's funny is we use Ferndale schools, Ferndale EMS, Huntington Woods Library, Royal Oak DPW. The only thing we have is police, which is really nice. Everybody wanted to keep police. The guy who ran against me had pushed for public safety. Then all of a sudden he was trying to get people to believe I was going to get rid of our police department. That was not the case at all. 
 
How did you address the concerns, the fear?

The question I always ask is what are you scared of? We're all residents. We all want the best for the community. What is it you think is going to happen? We'll still have police. They'll still make checks on your house when you're on vacation. They'll notice. If the dome light is on in your car and let you know. We'll still have leaf pickup…I said we live regionally. People live in Pleasant Ridge, but chances are they don't work in Pleasant Ridge. They certainly don't shop for groceries or many other things in Pleasant Ridge. Unless you only go to Mae's or Cork you eat outside of Pleasant Ridge when you to out.
 
The older population was very worried about changes. The white privilege has been changed, women taking things over, technology and the changes it brings. Any challenge to that status quo is a discomfort. We have new young families moving in, and they are connected to Detroit. They go there for the arts and culture. They know what happens in Detroit is important to Pleasant Ridge. 
 
Was it data that turned you regionalist?

One thing we've seen is the population of the region has dropped and the prosperity of the region has dropped and on and on. I was at a meeting in Columbus discussing data and a panel of business people said they use that data to see how Columbus is tracking and make sure to use it to guide decisions they're making. Detroit has always run away from this data.
 
What do you bring to the table as a demographer? 

I try to explain that the demographers stuff is key to planning, using info to plan efficiently. It's really been the experiences I've had, the fact hat I've had over 38 years in this region and have been able to work with neighborhoods up to corporate leaders and see that numbers can guide decision-making, that data can bring folks together. How do we utilize the data for improving ourselves? Whether working with a neighborhood group or large corporation the information is important. The data are the data. The data are not good or bad. It's what you do with the data, how you use it to improve lives.
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