Democratic National Convention 2012 Notebook: Some public relations lessons ... from Detroit?

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To the folks who thought boosterism Charlotte-style could not be more frenzied, I just returned from a place that could give lessons. If ever a city had to dig itself out of a public relations hole, it would be Detroit. As Charlotte works out any flaws — including taking another look at the operation of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority — Charlotte’s problems seem small when compared to the shrinking city on the Detroit River. (After the 2010 census, Charlotte moved ahead to rank at No. 17 to Detroit’s 18.) Current Mayor Dave Bing is trying to rebuild while living down the memory of his recently paroled predecessor Kwame Kilpatrick, and Michigan’s auto industry — on a slow road back — is no longer an automatic path to the middle class.

I traveled there for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists annual conference, to moderate the panel “Lies, Damned Lies and Talking Points: How to write about hot-button political issues in the upcoming election cycle without getting played.” And I got to pick up a writing award in a ceremony in the gorgeous Detroit Institute of Arts where our dinner companion was “Detroit Industry,” the massive Diego Rivera mural looking on from above.

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Each day was packed with field trips, some like the Motown Museum a sign of past glory. The Heidelberg Project promised a creative renaissance; the outdoor art installation in a once-crumbling block has been transformed by the vision of neighborhood artist Tyree Guyton.

Most outings looked forward: a stop at TechTown, the Wayne State University research and technology park that’s an incubator for entrepreneurs; a tour of Quicken Loan’s new downtown office, and lunch at Compuware. The phrases we heard: “one of the best-kept secrets in the country” and “it’s not about problems, it’s about people.” But as panelist Rochelle Riley from the Detroit Free Press reminded everyone, opportunities won’t mean much if public schools don’t prepare all children for those new jobs.

On a personal tour with a friend, I saw neat homes with manicured front yards next to burned-out hulks, mansions a block away from rubble. It took a long time for Detroit to become unfortunate shorthand for what a troubled city looks like. It makes that rise to glory tougher no matter how many community and business leaders work to make it so.

Even though it’s easy to make fun of Charlotte’s world-class aspirations, things could be worse. But remember that Detroit hosted the 1980 Republican convention that nominated Ronald “Morning in America” Reagan.

Without a strong commitment to economic and infrastructure development and strong schools, a convention is a nice, but passing, event.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root, NPR, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog. Her “Keeping It Positive” segment airs Wednesdays at 7:10 on TV’s Fox News Rising Charlotte, and she was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter. http://twitter.com/mcurtisnc3.

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