Dan Austin has gone from the Detroit Free Press editorial board to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's administration to a high-level public relations position in just a few short years.
But most recently, the 37-year-old senior account executive for Van Dyke Horn Public Relations helped craft the messaging for a state legislative package that is partially financing a series of monumental construction projects in downtown Detroit.
Austin, a graduate of Michigan State University who also runs the Historic Detroit website tracking the city’s buildings and architectural history, had the challenge of making the public case for legislation that some viewed as Detroit-specific to a state Legislature that had in recent years dealt with Motor City issues like the bankruptcy, public lighting authority and its public school system.
“There was Detroit burnout,” said Austin, who joined Van Dyke Horn a year after becoming deputy communications director for Duggan.
So far, the end result of the so-called MiThrive legislation has been $618.1 million in brownfield financing for four Dan Gilbert construction projects downtown totaling $2.14 billion in capital investment.
But Austin and others have been quick to note that while the Detroit projects for Gilbert — whose name was attached to the legislation early on in the process when his lieutenants testified in Lansing in its favor in late 2016 — were the first to receive financing, projects from around the state are eligible for the incentives.
“It’s about how we can take places, sites in every corner of the state that have sat vacant and unused in some cases for decades and find creative solutions for and help revitalize them,” he said.
But more locally, Austin’s HistoricDetroit.org website has become a go-to encyclopedia for history buffs, journalists, Detroiters and others. It gets about 25,000 page views per month and its social media accounts have around 57,000 follows.
Austin said he spends about 10 hours a week on the project, which started in 2011 and is part of his broader effort to “try my best to lobby to turn bulldozers off.”