The above scene was common during Detroit’s heyday a few generations ago, before the city suffered a precipitous economic decline. Today, Detroit is amidst a revival, and there is widespread hope among the city’s leaders and residents that its vibrancy will return.
The centerpiece of Detroit’s revival is the M-1 Rail project, a 3.3-mile circulating streetcar that will run along Woodward Avenue, through the heart of downtown. Tasked with construction of the M-1 is Stacy and Witbeck Inc., one of the country’s leading light rail developers. The Alameda, California-based company is known for the restoration of the historic cable car line in San Francisco?and is looking to improve Detroit’s public transportation.
Though Stacy and Witbeck have completed rail projects around the United States, they know the M-1 is special. Mark Gaffney, corporate equipment manager, is optimistic about the project and the change it will have on the community. “This project is going to be a stepping stone to (Detroit’s) recovery,” he said. “I think it’s really going to be a positive.”
The goal of the M-1 Rail line is to connect the downtown neighborhoods, making them more accessible and attracting more visitors. With pedestrians moving freely between the business district, shopping areas, the theater district, and the sports stadiums, officials hope their city will be revitalized, and more economic development will follow.
Paul Hillgonds, chair of the southeastern Michigan Regional Transit Authority, said in an article in Bridge Magazine, that he was excited about the future of Detroit’s public transportation as the M-1 nears completion. “I hope it will excite the imagination of the region,” he said.
It already seems to be working. Several large projects are in the works around the M-1, including new apartments, shops and restaurants, and a stadium for the Detroit Red Wings professional hockey team.
The M-1 is also improving Detroit’s economy in a more direct way, by providing good jobs for the city’s residents. Stacy and Witbeck knew what the project would mean to the community, and has been committed to staying local for resources and workers.
“Our goal was to hire local subcontractors and suppliers,” said Tom Gilman, project manager for Stacy and Witbeck, adding that the project has energized the local workforce. “Working on a project they will see every day, local contractors pour their hearts into the revitalization.”
The hub of the automotive industry, Detroit was once a thriving city and a driving force behind the American economy. The M-1 Rail project, along with other development projects throughout the city, give residents hope that the good times will return.
That’s a welcome change for a city that many people thought was in a hopeless decline. Gaffney and his team at Stacy and Witbeck are happy to be a part of this effort to revive a great American city.
“We do projects like this all over the country. I think the M-1 is helping to build a sense of pride,” said Gaffney. “This city really deserves this.”
A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue?of The Dirt Magazine.?
Filling the Talent Pipeline
Most parents dream of their kids going off to college and pursuing a prestigious career like medicine or business. Steve Higgins is opening their eyes to the construction industry, and at the same time helping to solve a daunting problem.
“I have customers with more machines than operators,” lamented Higgins, corporate training director for AIS Construction Equipment.
It’s an observation that’s indicative of a national problem that is especially severe in Detroit and southeast Michigan. “The pool of people contractors have to choose from is so small,” said Higgins.
To address the problem, the AIS Training Center, a division of AIS Construction Equipment, began reaching out to high school students to introduce them to construction, offer training, and help them find careers.
It starts with clearing up some misconceptions students – and their parents – have about construction. Many people think that you can’t earn a good living in construction, and that its cyclical nature makes it hard to stay employed, according to Higgins.
“Nobody knows what we do and how much money you can make doing it,” said Higgins. He spends much of his time at open houses and visiting high schools, giving presentations, and talking to kids and parents about the different careers and earnings potential within construction.
In addition to educating young people about construction careers, AIS takes it a step further with its training program. The training center currently works with three school districts around southeast Michigan to instruct students in equipment operation, repair, and management.
AIS started the high school training program about 14 years ago, with five students. Today, more than 120 students are enrolled in the program’s six daily classes. Upon graduating from the program, students are often placed in jobs with AIS customers, or hired by AIS directly.
Many of the technicians who maintain and repair equipment on the M-1 Rail project went through the AIS high school training program.
Higgins said the program has been successful in providing AIS with qualified job candidates. “I always seem to have a pool of people to pick from,” he said.
More importantly, the high school program is helping to fill the talent pipeline, which in turn is helping the construction industry lead the area’s economic recovery.