Surprising Solutions for a Bankrupt City

Detroit has plenty of company in cities that have faced dire financial prospects. From selling Roosevelt’s rifle to selling the whole town, a look at the innovative ways municipalities have found extra cash

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Paul Taggart / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Rifles, including a rifle once owned by Theodore Roosevelt, on auction in Harrisburg, PA, on Oct. 28, 2011.  

Detroit filed for bankruptcy Thursday, becoming the largest city in America to do so. The city of 700,000 people is struggling with a $380 million deficit and more than $14 billion in debt.

But the great recession was not particularly choosy in selecting its victims. Cities across the country have faced rising deficits and, in many cases, looming bankruptcy. Here’s a look at the unorthodox measures taken by some cities to stop the flood of red ink.

(MORE: Motor City Meltdown: Long Road Ahead for Detroit’s Record Bankruptcy)

Star in a jeans commercial
The town of Braddock, Pennsylvania has turned its desolation into an attraction.

Mayor John Fetterman, who has garnered a number of headlines for his efforts to revive his fading Rust Belt town, has trumpeted what he calls Braddock’s “malignant beauty.”Jeans maker Levi Strauss & Company showed up to produce ads that featured the residents’ every-day struggles for its “Go forth” ad campaign.

Film our ruins
The Office of Film and Television in Gary, Indiana is capitalizing on the decrepit landscape of the former steel-producing juggernaut.  Between 2010 and 2011, at least 50 films were shot in the city—including titles like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Heaven Is Hell.” Gary hasn’t been able to afford the cost of demolishing now-vacant buildings, the New York Times reports.

Auction off Roosevelt’s rifle
Harrisburg, the financially troubled capital of Pennsylvania, is facing $500 million in debt. Among the city’s bureaucratic missteps was purchasing $8 million in memorabilia for a museum that never was built. Now, the city is hoping to turn that mistake into cash. Harrisburg is auctioning off its collection of 8,000 Wild West items. Also in the haul: a rifle once owned by Theodore Roosevelt and a shirt worn by World War II general George Patton.  The Patriot-News reports that the sale of the items is expected to bring in about a quarter of what the city initially paid.

Sell the whole thing or at least the library
Buford, Wyoming (population 1) made headlines last year when an unidentified Vietnamese man bought the unincorporated area that once was home to 2,000 residents for $900,000. Pontiac, Michigan has tried to make much need cash by putting its police station, city hall, and library up for sale.

Welcome Zappos
Cities are hoping private investment can help fill the void in public spending. Internet entrepreneur Tony Hsieh has injected hundreds of millions of dollars into Las Vegas as the city works its way out of the devastation wrought by the economic collapse. Hsieh is leading a $350 million project to revitalize the city’s downtown and is relocating his online shoe store, Zappos, to Las Vegas.

The mayor of Lipscomb, Alabama is hoping God will help cover the city’s mounting debt, the local news site reported in May. Facing more than $600,000 in debts, Mayor Lance McDade asked residents at a city council meeting to pray for the city. “So we ask for wisdom and ask for divine intervention, and of course we do solicit your support and your prayers, and if anyone has any ideas, we are open to those ideas,” McDade said. “Again, we pray for the city of Lipscomb.”

MORE: Pittsburgh’s Lessons for Detroit