DETROIT – Every January, Cobo Center, now in the final stages of a $279-million expansion and upgrade, is the scene of the North American International Auto Show.
The city is expecting more than 800,000 visitors to the downtown convention center for the public days of the auto show, which started on Saturday.
But the show had opened a week earlier to 5,000 or more news media analysts and industry executives and other representatives from 60 countries. I was among that group, courtesy of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Detroit Regional Chamber.
And it became quite the glitzy affair, with an “auto show prom night” – real name Charity Preview gala — where attendees paid $400 a ticket to stroll between shiny cars with champagne in hand, decked out in evening gowns and tuxedos.
Truly, this was Detroit’s night to shine. I can tell you that many of the sleek models on display caught my eye, and I liked the cars, too.
But more impressive than the show itself is what I sensed was happening outside the Cobo Center, where I continued to pick up on this sense of pride and even defiance. The city has been down, no question about that, but it was far from out.
And if you were to go downtown, you very well might be surprised. I know I was, as there is an economic vitality that I think many cities would envy.
And so in the wake of bankruptcy, now over and now viewed as the right thing to do by most, there is recognition that big problems remain – restoring city services, removing blight, and fixing broken public schools top the list — but there is a widespread belief that things are getting better.
And I witnessed concrete evidence to show that it is so. This was my second trip to Detroit in 18 months, and I saw things that I hadn’t seen on my first trip.
A Neighborhood in the Making
The blockbuster is the future Red Wings stadium district, a $650 million project now under construction. I say “district” because that is what is planned — a 45-block neighborhood with residential, retail and offices in addition to a big red bowl that will be Red Wings Stadium.
Just under $300 million will come from public monies, with the rest from the family-owned Ilitch Holdings, owner of the Red Wings. This project has all the makings of a game changer.
Likewise, public/private partnership funding has resulted in the construction of the $140 million Woodward Avenue M-1 Rail streetcar project. The 3.3-mile light rail line will link downtown to the New Center area, a prominent commercial and residential historic district located uptown.
Woodward Avenue continues to be the economic spine of the city, where young professionals, mostly casually dressed, dominate. This is urban hipster territory.
If you want to find an apartment here, good luck. The residential occupancy rate in the downtown/Woodward Avenue corridor is at 98 percent.
Despite that, Dan Gilbert, the CEO and owner Quicken Loans, wants his mostly young workforce to live in close proximity to the financial empire and real estate holdings that he is building downtown.
Gilbert and other downtown employers are incentivizing employees to live downtown — $5,000 for apartment dwellers, $25,000 for home buyers.
Back in 2013, Gilbert’s downtown real estate holdings extended to more than 30 buildings. Today, they are more than 70.
I took a tour of several of the Quicken Loan operational centers downtown. They were mostly staffed by what I thought of were “kids,” albeit very bright kids. I left impressed but also feeling this was no country for old men.
Naturally, the same held true at the private College for Creative Studies in midtown Detroit, where 1,400 students are learning to be visual communicators, pursuing degrees in a plethora of product design and creative functions that would appeal to numerous industries.
Shinola Shines Here
One company that found Detroit and CCS in particular a draw was Shinola, which moved a large building with the college in 2013.
Originally called the Argonaut Building when it was built in 1928 for General Motors, it was renamed the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education in 2009 soon after it was donated by carmaker to the school.
The building’s DNA is that of design and creativity, and for that reason alone, Shinola, a maker of luxury goods, must feel at home. The 760,000-square-foot building housed GM’s first automotive design studio under Harley Earl, and the world’s first concept car, the Buick Y-Job, was born here.
Now I do no proclaim to be the smartest fellow in the room, but I can recognize scheisse from Shinola. And let me tell you, Shinola does not make scheisse (look it up).
What Shinola does make is a wonderful line of watches, high quality leather and paper journals, and way cool bicycles. And much of its operations are housed in the former Argonaut building with the CCS.
The Backbone of the Country
Shinola President Jacques Panis, a native Virginian who bought a home in Detroit last year, said Detroit was really the only place for his company.
“The middle class of America was built right here. This city built our country. It was the backbone of our country. And to look past this place in our opinion is the wrong thing to do. It’s here. The people are here, the work ethic is here.
“They are proud people and they want to work. And they are excited to be here.”
I got to see the watch assembly and the leather works firsthand. It was evident the workers were engaged and took pride in their work.
It was then that I understood what “DETROIT VS EVERYBODY” really meant. I had seen it emblazoned on hoodie sweatshirts in storefront windows at the airport and other places.
This not so much belligerent speak as a statement of faith – that our city can and will compete against all comers. Never ever write us off. We have something to prove.
A Manufacturing Innovation Center
No American city contributed more to the Allied powers during WWII than Detroit. It was “The Arsenal of Democracy,” producing jeeps, tanks, and B-24 bombers. By the summer of 1944, Ford’s Willow Run plant was cranking out one bomber an hour.
It was a dangerous time and it remains a dangerous time now. Manufacturing is inextricably linked to our national defense. I was reminded of that while attending ribbon cutting ceremony at a newly renovated 100,000-square foot building in a neighborhood called Corktown.
“When we fail to manufacture, we fail to innovate,” said Lawrence Brown, executive director of the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute.
“We fail to innovate, we find ourselves beholden to another country.”
Brown spoke before a sizable audience that had gathered inside what will become the Institute’s innovation center, designed to speed up the pace of moving lightweight metal products from labs to factories.
The center will also train workers on how to use the new technology to help boost energy efficiency, reduce emissions and enhance military missions.
The $148-million public-private project is being funded by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and companies, including Alcoa, Boeing and Johnson Controls. The University of Michigan, and (the) Ohio State University, strange bedfellows to be sure, are also partners in the project.
The center, still empty of machines, was originally slated to be based in Canton, Mich., but was lured to Detroit by Mayor Mike Duggan last summer after a lease agreement fell through.
Leave No One Behind
As I alluded to earlier in this blog, all things are not well in Detroit, which has a 38 percent poverty rate. Away from the glitz and the glory, there remains a large underclass of people who are struggling out in the neighborhoods away from the downtown.
The truth is they have little saleable skills in the job marketplace and have difficulty accessing opportunities for their lack of education and the lack of transportation.
In a city known for moving people via the auto industry, they find themselves isolated as public transportation here is spotty at best. Life may not improve for them substantially anytime soon, unless they can somehow break away or get a break.
Economic development should leave no one behind. In next week’s blog, I’m going to tell you about a newly started program in Michigan to reach those in need of a job who might be considered unemployable.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas.
If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help.http://www.barberadvisors.com
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