April 18, 2009 at 4:52 pm

Cobo may lose grip on car show

Expansion deal dies after Cockrel loses appeal

Serra )

Detroit --The Cobo Center expansion is dead, organizers of the North American International Auto Show -- its premier event -- may explore leaving town, and city and suburban leaders are squabbling over who's to blame.

Hours after the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling Friday killing the deal, auto show organizers said they're open to other venues, while acknowledging few alternatives exist in southeast Michigan. The court ruling nixed a transfer to a regional authority -- once hailed as an example of area cooperation -- that would have overseen a $288 million expansion to the decades-old facility.

"We've got an obligation and a responsibility to the show to provide it with the best venue possible," said Joe Serra, the co-chairman of the 2009 show. The event pumps $350 million to $500 million into the economy.

"It's only proper we keep an open mind to all options. Our dream was to stay at Cobo and make (the show) a part of Detroit. That's why we've been so patient over the years and make that work. Our hearts are with Detroit and Cobo."

Doug Fox, a show co-chairman, said organizers aren't interested in leaving Cobo, but would "at least listen to those options and consider them." They have a commitment to stay at Cobo through 2010.

"I don't believe there is a facility that meets our needs," Fox said. "We were hopeful this was going to be our solution, and maybe it can still be our solution. Our goal all along is to stay in Detroit. We've made this clear for many years."

The two antagonists in the deal -- Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and City Council President Monica Conyers -- blame each other for the deal's collapse. Patterson said he's open to revisiting the deal after the November city elections, should voters elect a new council.

'Let the dust settle'

"We have to back it up and let the dust settle," Patterson said. "When the (mayoral and Detroit City Council) elections are over, maybe we'll have a more reasonable group with which to engage. I'd be willing to submit the identical legislation. If they try to change the terms, Oakland County has no interest."

Conyers said Patterson should "stop trashing Detroit and its leaders and act like a grownup and come back to the table." She added that Patterson, whom she reached out to late Friday afternoon to urge him to come back to the table, is upset "because he cannot control us."

"Do not make this about me instead of dealing with the issues," Conyers said. "We are tired of his divisiveness and attacks on our elected officials. When he wants to deal with the issues instead of attacking the person, then we can talk."

In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed Wayne Circuit Judge Isidore Torres' decision that Mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr. illegally vetoed a City Council resolution blocking the transfer. Cockrel argued the city charter allows mayors to veto council resolutions, but the court agreed that a December law gave the council sole power to thwart the deal.

Council members said Detroit should have received more than $20 million for the facility and more than one vote on the authority. The five-member authority was to be composed of one representative apiece from Detroit, the state and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

The authority was set to take over Monday. Instead, the city retains ownership and has no plans for renovations.

Cockrel, who will not appeal, said he disagreed with the ruling but has no regrets.

"A modern, improved Cobo Center is critical to the competitiveness of Detroit and the region," Cockrel said. "I will do whatever is needed to ensure that the much-needed improvements to the facility are made as soon as possible."

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano said he's not giving up because "we were very close to a deal." He wants to bring the issue back after the May 5 mayoral election.

Granholm sees few options

But Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who signed the legislation in January surrounded by council members who later voted against the deal, said there is little interest in Lansing to create a better one.

"Today's ruling leaves very few options," Granholm said in a released statement. "Once the mayor and the City Council agree on a plan that is acceptable to all of the interested parties, then we will be in a position to move forward."

Two weeks of talks spurred by Torres broke down after members of the regional authority deadlocked over giving Detroiters an edge when awarding contracts, according to those close to the negotiations. Patterson's authority representative, Mike Carroll, wanted all bidders to have an equal shot at doing business at Cobo Center and opposed a plan that benefited Detroit-based enterprises

"Will Oakland County enter into a family and friends purchasing policy? No, not a chance. We don't do that out here," said Bob Daddow, Oakland's deputy executive.

"There isn't much else that can be done. The City Council, who decided to challenge the legislation, got what they wanted. They have to develop a plan to renovate it to save the auto show."

While Patterson called the court ruling a "setback," he did say he wants the auto show to remain in Detroit because "that's where it belongs."

But if the council can't make that happen, Patterson said he'd rather have the event move into the suburbs than Chicago or Las Vegas.

Detroit News Staff Writer Leonard N. Fleming contributed to this report.