As hundreds of thousands of people fled from Detroit during the last decade, Santanu “Sandy” Baruah was one of the few who moved to the downtrodden city.
The garrulous former head of the U.S. Small Business Administration under George W. Bush saw an opportunity. Locals regarded him “kind of like an odd-looking insect,” the Indian-American Baruah jokes.
“Who moves to Detroit at end of 2009, 2010? No one does that!”
But since the 49-year-old Baruah relocated from Washington, D.C. with his wife (a Buffalo native who was an “easier sell” than he was) and son to take the top post at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Motor City has risen from the dead and is showing some encouraging signs of life.
Baruah is both riding the wave and helping to propel it.
That’s his job: to be Detroit’s biggest cheerleader, tapping the connections he’s made while promoting commercial interests in both Bush administrations to make sure the world knows the city’s a good place to do business. He seems to have sold himself on his own pitch. After just four years, he’s embraced the Motor City as much as any of Detroit’s diehard natives.
His method? Take a step at a time.
He can play well with left and right in this deeply Democratic city, though he’s also not afraid to mix it up with those he doesn’t agree with.
“For so long I think so many people in this area — and I got this when I first moved in — said, ‘what are you going to do, what’s the big project?’”
“There is no one big project,” he says. “It’s a thousand little things going well. Do the buses run on time, do the cops show up, does City Hall function in any sort of reasonable way?”
Those sorts of things, he says, are what give business people the confidence to invest and to help rebuild the city.
And he’s trying to spread the word to his extensive business contacts that things are getting better. For example, he initiated a Chamber partnership with California-based venture capitalist Peter Gardner to launch Startgrid Detroit, a sort of LinkedIn for entrepreneurs, aping the network that startup companies benefit from in an established entrepreneurial hotbed like Silicon Valley.
And he’s lassoed in a wide mix of business people and potential investors from outside the state and the country to see opportunities for themselves. The Chamber’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference, for example, is becoming an increasingly hot ticket. This spring, it featured popular former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, author Malcolm Gladwell and top executives from Microsoft, Dow Chemical and J.P. Morgan.
Baruah’s just one of a large group of public and private sector leaders working to rally private investment, and it’s hard to compare his impact to, say, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who has spent more than $1 billion buying up properties in and around downtown, helping to spark new life in the city center.
And one place where Baruah has a unique set of contacts and knowledge — federal government — has not been much of a player in Detroit, disappointing activists who wonder why national officials haven’t come to their aid the same way they’ve responded to disasters in New Orleans or the Jersey Shore.
Despite his Republican affiliations, Baruah is proving that he can play well with left and right in this deeply Democratic city, though he’s also not afraid to mix it up with politicians (of both stripes) that he doesn’t agree with. The Chamber has worked closely with both Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Democratic Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and endorsed a number of Democrats in 2014. But they’ve also taken heat for not inviting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer to this year’s Mackinac Conference.
Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, a Democrat and member of the Chamber’s board that originally recruited Baruah, lauds him for being “energetic, hands-on and wanting to immerse himself on the issues and concerns of citizens.”
Baruah says his political thinking is heavily shaped by his first boss in politics, Oregon Republican Sen. Bob Packwood, a GOP moderate of a sort now all but extinct from the party. Baruah parlayed an internship over the summer of his sophomore year at University of Oregon into a full-time gig in the senator’s office upon graduation in the 1980s.
‘This area actually has a greater base to work from, a greater set of foundational assets’ than the majority of American cities, Baruah says.
After working for Packwood, Baruah went on to work on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. From there, he landed jobs in the Department of Interior, Department of Labor and Department of Commerce across both Bush administrations.
Baruah came to appreciate Detroit when he arrived to work on the federal government’s auto bailout in the final months of the Bush presidency.
“This area actually has a greater base to work from, a greater set of foundational assets” than the majority of American cities, Baruah says, rattling off a list of stats — the busiest American border crossing with Canada, the fourth-largest high tech workforce in the country, the 12th busiest airport in North America.
“What this region has lacked traditionally though is how to take the parts and become more than the sum of its parts,” he says. That requires bridging the divide between urban Detroit and the wealthy suburbs, not to mention Canadian partners across the Detroit River.
The region has rallied around the city since it filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy last year. It remains a controversial decision, since it required painful cuts to pension plans and other difficult choices. But most in the business community believe it was the right call.
Bankruptcy’s given the city a reprieve from debt collectors and a chance to renegotiate what it owes. Private companies and institutions have stepped in to lend a hand in a “grand bargain” in which the state, city employees and creditors have chipped in to revive the city’s finances. Now, between bargain basement property rates and an urban center that has nowhere to go but up, businesses see a chance to reinvent the economy — and make serious profits.
Indeed, $12 billion in property investment has flowed into Detroit since 2006.
Of course, while Baruah and others hype the progress downtown, huge swathes of this 143-square-mile city — the poorest large city in America — are as depressed and blighted as ever.
The Chamber’s focus on education — one of its three top priorities — could address some of these inequities, and help build a modern workforce. It’s part of a local coalition that has begun issuing a scorecard on K-12 schools citywide, which shows most are failing. Fixing them is proving a lot tougher — and divisive.
For Baruah, the test for Detroit is not the influx of what he calls “friends-and-family money” — native Detroiters plunking down for their own city. Rather, it’s investment and migration from outside flowing in.
“Now it’s coming,” Baruah says. Transplants, believers like him.
Why you should care
Detroit’s recovery from bankruptcy depends on people like him.