One of the perks of my job as a member of PLM World's site selection committee is that I get to go around the US doing city visits with CVBs, that’s industry lingo for Convention and Visitors Bureau, looking at great cities that we could bring our 2,000 person annual conference to. I’ll admit, it’s a pretty fun part of the job and I’ve been to some really great locations. Picture cities like Anaheim, Phoenix, Orlando, Indianapolis, well, you get the idea. And then one day, someone says “OK, it’s time to book your site visit of Detroit.”
Wait, what? Did you say Detroit? Have you seen the news? I can’t go to Detroit, It's not safe there!
But then I get the standard assurances, “It will be fine, I wouldn’t make you go if it wasn’t worth it.” Right, we will see. So I went, and believe it or not, I have to admit it was fine and it was worth it. It wasn’t at all what I expected, and I’m so glad I got to experience this city. Here are 5 reasons why I was wrong about Detroit.
1. The Riverfront
I think what shocked me most upon arrival was how beautiful the city is. I had the same vision most people do of dilapidated buildings, homeless people in the streets, people selling drugs, you name it. I know, it’s not fair, but without ever having seen something most people just assume the very worst. I was one of those people. What I saw was far from what I imagined.
This city is poised right on the Detroit River with a gorgeous view of our Canadian friends south of us. Yes, you heard me right. I said south, look it up. As I walked from my hotel at the Renaissance Center to the Cobo Center along the Riverwalk, I saw people jogging, professionals walking to work and parents playing with their children. Yes, I also saw police patrolling the area, but I never got the feeling that they were there because they expected horrible danger at any moment. Rather they were just doing their job patrolling downtown like I see in any other town across the US.
2. Dan Gilbert
You can’t really tell a story about the rebirth of a city without talking about who is going to pay for it. Let’s face it, it is going to take a lot of money to complete all of the renovation this city has planned. So what does Dan Gilbert have to do with this? A lot.
Detroit native and Founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert is likely the largest reason for the successful transformation this city is seeing. So far, he has spent over $1 billion acquiring and renovating real estate to bring Detroit back to being a place that folks want to be. He has many of his businesses right in the heart of the city, and even employs two “Ambassadors” on his staff with the sole objective of educating the masses about the value of Detroit. We were fortunate enough to spend an hour with one of them to get a quick tour of Gilbert’s businesses, and listen to his pitch about Dan’s vision for the future.
Now before you get too excited, let me just address what you are surely thinking. Dan Gilbert is a very wealthy man that is looking to make even more money, so sure, he has $1 billion reasons for wanting to see the city thrive. But to be quite honest with you, I don’t really care how much money he is making. The truth of the matter is that what he is making is a difference. He is revitalizing more than 60 buildings downtown for businesses and people to move into, creating outdoor common areas for families and business professionals to hang out like Campus Martius Park, and has his own security team partnering with the city to clean up the crime and make it a safe place to be.
3. Fox Theater
This gorgeous historical landmark may not be everyone’s style, but it is still a huge part of this city’s history where it hosted performances by likes of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Elvis Presley and numerous famous Motown artists. It is elegant and ornate in true 1920s style and just being inside of it takes you right back to a time when entertainment was so much more than just catching a movie at your local cinema.
This Theater opened originally in 1928 as the largest of the original Fox Theaters built by film great William Fox. Though his family eventually sold it, it remained in operation until 1980 when it was closed for much needed restoration. In 1988, The Ilitch Family, owners of the Detroit Red Wings, Tigers and Little Caesars Pizza, bought it and restored it to its original glory and it is back open hosting shows and concerts regularly. If you get a chance to go by there, see if you can get someone to sneak you back stage to get a glimpse of the walls signed by the many folks that have graced the stage. With a capacity to hold over 3,000 people, the Fox Theater would be a strong candidate for us to hold a special offsite event during our conference.
4. The People
Two economists recently crunched survey data by the CDC* to find which metro areas in the US are most “dissatisfied” with their life. Their findings revealed that Detroit ranked horribly low on the list. Hearing that would leave you expecting that local Detroit residents as a whole are miserable right? In my experience, that just isn’t the case. I found the people of Detroit to be generally very happy and proud to be from there. Local Detroit residents already know what a gem their city is, they are just waiting for the rest of us to figure it out. They all share the same vision of hope that the continued renovation will draw more and more outsiders to come see what all the fuss is about.
Everyone tells a similar tale saying “If you haven’t been here in the last 3 years you wouldn’t even recognize it.” They are experiencing all that their city has to offer every day, and it’s evident when I see how many people are out and about on the downtown streets day and night. Multiple sources told me that so many people want to live downtown that there is hardly an apartment available to rent anymore, and many of the buildings have large waiting lists of folks wanting to move into them as soon as possible.
These residents are proud of their city, and wouldn’t miss an opportunity to tell you why. They know it still has a ways to go, but they are well aware of all of the plans that the city has to continue its rebirth and are excited about it. For instance, in addition to the already popular people mover they use for transportation, the city is just about to break ground on its latest project to build an electric rail along Woodward Avenue to connect downtown to midtown Detroit. Another one of the massive improvements being made downtown.
5. The trouble isn’t downtown
What do residents and business owners most want to tell you about Detroit? That what you see on the news isn’t about the “downtown” area, but rather the outskirts of downtown. Cue the Eminem music and images of 8 mile road. It’s an unfortunate band of troubled area that separates downtown from the suburbs. The city is well aware that this is the image that they need to get out of people’s heads when trying to market the rebirth of downtown. The headlines we have seen over and over are very real issues the city has to overcome, and they aren’t shying away from that. They freely admit that there is still a lot of work to be done before the rest of the US will start seeing Detroit as safe and crime free. But the point they want to make is that the downtown area is safe. You can enjoy downtown without fear, you can bring your children to play in the park, you can park in parking structures and safely walk to watch an outdoor concert, and tourists can feel safe leaving their hotel at night to find a restaurant for dinner.
Honestly though, doesn’t every large city have bad areas and crime? Even as I write this I can think of two other large cities right now making more headlines for homicide and crime than Detroit. So don’t we owe it to this city to keep an open mind?
The locals reading this are saying “Wait, is that it? What about the rest? There is so much more that we have to offer that you haven’t even mentioned. What about Greektown, Belle Isle, Joe Louis “fist” and the Eastern Market?” And to you I say that you are absolutely right. This is also the birthplace of Motown, the heart of our automotive industry, home to Lions and Tigers and Red Wings (I know, it just doesn’t have the same effect), and so many museums it would take you weeks to see it all.
But to the locals I say this… Now you have something new to tell the readers when they come to Detroit themselves.
I'd love to hear your comments, and feedback on this article. Please let us know what you would think if PLM World would want to hold one of its annual conferences in downtown Detroit.