As Flint continues to recover from its water crisis that started more than three years ago, the city’s mayor is working on a multi-track approach to improve the city’s fate. Karen Weaver, who was elected mayor in November 2015, said she’s focusing on improving water quality and infrastructure, while also working on economic development initiatives for the city of around 98,000 people. Weaver spoke with MiBiz during the annual Mackinac Policy Conference hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber on Mackinac Island.
What’s happened in the last six months or so in Flint?
We’ve made some progress over the last six months. You know, we’ve gotten some federal funding and some state funding to address the lead service line replacements. We have submitted our water recommendation (that the city continue to buy water from the Great Lakes Water Authority). Once that gets passed, the plan starts falling into place. The state funding, (which came) through a lawsuit (from) concerned pastors … is more recent, about a month ago.
What has that done for the city?
That gave us the rest of the money we needed to move the lead service line replacement forward. What’s nice is, with those two funding sources and the water recommendation that we put forward, if that goes through, it gives us money to address not just the lead service line replacement but larger infrastructure.
Why’s that important?
Right-sizing infrastructure and fixing some things. That’s what’s going on right now, which is a really good thing. One of the other things that’s been going on is we’ve really been starting to look at economic development now in the city of Flint.
The economic development piece seems like an important component of the city’s recovery. No one downplays the tragedy of the water crisis, but does it open up opportunity to look at a new economic development strategy for Flint?
Yes, it really does. That’s what we wanted to have happen. Even when you look at the lead service line replacements that are going on, it was important that we were able to have local companies benefit from this. If you look at who’s doing the replacement, it’s Flint and Genesee County companies.
What does that mean for the region?
So many times, and I think that’s what people were scared of: Big companies would come in and they would get the economic benefits of the tragedy that we’ve had to live with. It hasn’t been like that and that’s been a great thing. Even when you look at the teams that are going around to educate people about filter maintenance and use: When the state gave us the funding for that, I told them I want Flint residents hired. We’ve been able to put our people to work.
It seems like there’s still some confusion over this question: Is it currently safe to drink the water in Flint?
Right now, we’re still telling people to use bottled and filtered water because of the construction going on. While we’re disrupting things, you shake things loose. It’s a different reason this time than it was before because when we look at our rounds of testing, the water has tested extremely well. We’ve made great strides in the water quality in the city of Flint. Because we’re doing construction in all areas of the city, we need to continue with the bottled and filtered water. This is going to be a three-year project.
How would you describe your current relationship with the federal and state governments?
With the federal government, we always had a great relationship. With the new administration, there has not been much communication. There have been a couple of conference calls but there has not been that same relationship. But let me say this: We got a federal grant just a couple of days ago to help get equipment.
What else would you say elected officials have done in recent months?
Our Michigan delegation has been really working hard to continue to get us funding for different kinds of things. I’ve been working with the state since I got there, and we’ve continued to work together because we know that’s how we’re going to make things happen for the city of Flint. You put your differences behind, you find things you can agree on, you work together, and you move forward.
For a time, the world was watching Flint, but that spotlight has diminished somewhat. Why should people in West Michigan or elsewhere continue to pay attention to how Flint’s situation is playing out?
One is because Flint’s been the poster child for so many cities, not only across the state but across this country when you look at water quality standards and needing higher, newer water quality standards.
What do you mean by that?
We’ve been the poster child for infrastructure and what happens when you don’t pay attention to infrastructure, and invest and maintain infrastructure. … And because we’re not out of the woods yet.
People need to use Flint for lessons learned because we’re not the only people dealing with water issues, we’re not the only people dealing with infrastructure issues. We have information to share, we can help people, we can provide technical assistance. People need to learn from us. We’ve had a public health crisis, an infrastructure crisis, an economic development crisis. We’re a community that has really suffered emotionally as a result of what happened. We have a lot to tell people.
Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes. Courtesy photo.