Bjarte Rettedal—Getty Images
By Anne VanderMey
July 15, 2014

In most cities, public services are funded with public dollars. But Detroit is not most cities.

Struggling under mountains of debt and with precious little cash, city cutbacks have left many Detroiters to their own devices. Some businesses have bought their own streetlights. A few artists have taken to beautifying abandoned buildings. And, increasingly, the city has come to rely on the kindness of a small army of private donors.

The list of Detroit benefactors reaches into the highest echelons of business. In May, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon pledged more than $100 million of over the next five years for loans and redevelopment. Goldman Sachs incorporated the city into its multi-million-dollar 10,000 Small Businesses campaign. Local utility DTE Energy put $1 million toward creating jobs for Detroit youth, while AOL founder Steve Case launched a splashy multi-city $100,000 investment contest in the city’s M@dison Building last month. And in addition to funding many other civic-minded projects, Quicken Loans chairman Dan Gilbert has famously bought more than a billion dollars of Detroit real estate and plowed money into refurbishing it.

The big-ticket displays of corporate citizenship force the question: What’s in it for the companies? Public stewardship isn’t exactly part of the shareholder-value-maximizing playbook. And while public-private partnerships get a lot of lip service from politicians, at least one observer has fretted over the rise of an unelected corporate oligarchy. There are a few possible motivations for corporations chipping in: It could be that low prices encourage investment in the distressed city (many stand to gain financially if the city bounces back). It could be that it’s worth paying for the PR that comes from helping out an American underdog. And it could be that the corporate titans have a genuine do-gooding impulse. Or, maybe most likely, it’s a combination of all of the above.

Click through for a roundup of the Motor City’s privately funded services.


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