NAIAS Chairman Bob Shuman, from left, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Grace Morgan of GM at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Thursday. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Detroit —The symbolism in glass, concrete and new carpet is too powerful to ignore:
The downtown conference center given up for dead, a laughingstock on the global auto show circuit and an embarrassment in its hometown, has new life. Under new management, a new ownership structure helped finance a nearly $300 million renovation despite a struggling economy and Detroit’s deepening financial troubles.
And there’s Mike Duggan, almost entourage-free, showing up for an annual rite. He’s getting his first guided tour of the North American International Auto Show — the new mayor walking a newly refurbished Cobo Center showcasing the capability of a revived hometown industry and foreign-owned rivals every bit as competitive as they’ve ever been.
What would he tell the more than 5,000 journalists expected to swarm the auto show starting early Monday? You know, the media horde whose impression of Detroit this year is likely to be colored by the marginally informed, apocalyptic hand-wringing over the city’s historic bankruptcy?
“The real Detroit has a long way to go,” the mayor said Thursday. “We have not translated the success of what people see here to what’s going on in the neighborhoods. We’re fighting. We’ve got our challenges. But nobody in this city is giving up.”
Ask about a rumored twist in the city’s bankruptcy case and he points to Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Ask about his first week on the job and he’s a) just learning and b) focused on improving the prosaic, if critical, delivery of basic city services. Like collecting garbage and plowing streets, or answering phones and getting streetlights burning again.
Understandable for a guy still unpacking boxes at City Hall. But to straggle along behind Duggan and ogle the show floor on the same day that Ford Motor Co. ups its dividend and General Motors Co. prepares to elevate a new CEO and Chrysler Group LLC readies itself to become a wholly owned unit of Fiat SpA is to be reminded of what’s really happening in Detroit.
Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly plant, an anchor of the east side, is building as many Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs as three shifts can muster, Phil Bockhorn, Chrysler’s senior manager of auto shows and corporate events, tells the mayor. The automaker’s Sterling Heights plant, rescued from bankruptcy-induced closure, will build the all-new Chrysler 200 debuting at next week’s show.
Scores of downtown buildings are being renovated, repopulated or both. Small businesses, from restaurants, bars and coffee shops to distilleries, retailers and property developers, are transforming slices of town whose fates should have been sealed — but weren’t — by bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy? Yes. The very real prospect that city employees and retirees could lose portions of the pensions? Yes, unfortunately. The likelihood that other city assets could be regionalized, much like Cobo was in 2009 after auto show organizers made it clear they would move the show elsewhere if meaningful updates to the venue were ignored? Yup.
“We’re the example,” said Patrick Bero, CEO of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, citing courtesy, transparency, customer service and results. “People are looking. And if we’re successful, it’ll carry on to other things.”
Like regionalizing assets the city can neither afford (like Cobo) nor manage (like the Water and Sewerage Department). Saying “Cobo has never looked better,” Duggan acknowledged the apparent success of a Cobo owned by a regional authority and added: “We need to look at when does an authority make sense and when does an authority not make sense.”
Most of all, a rejuvenated Cobo touting a rejuvenated industry is a metaphor for where Detroit, collectively speaking, could be — after bankruptcy, after tough calls in restructuring, after efforts to stem violent crime, light streets, collect trash and get the buses running properly quiet critics and encourage residents.
Thousands of journos readying for their annual trip to Detroit will see that if they bother to look beyond the scare headlines and the file shots of ruin porn that describe parts of Detroit, not all of it. Same for the tens of thousands who’ll elbow their way across the floor during the public days opening next weekend.
A revived Cobo and a leaner, better managed auto industry roaring back are evidence that turnarounds can happen, even here. It doesn’t just happen; it requires leadership and respect for reality that renews everyday.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday