Forget the ruin porn popularized by network news broadcasts purporting to show the real Detroit.
Note the crime, the municipal dysfunction, the amusing antics of the political class, the generalized woes accompanying the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. But understand they’re only parts of the unfolding turnaround story here years in the making.
The Detroit greeting more than 5,000 journalists today at the North American International Auto Show is many things all at the same time, a contradictory jumble of facts, human failure and success that can each claim as reality. Together, they’re a cautionary tale for the rest of a nation that deludes itself with the belief that “it could never happen to us.”
Really? Because Detroit, circa 2014, arguably is a microcosm of the best and worst America has to offer. Part of its story answers painful reality with resilience, restructuring and a knack for uncovering value in everything from product portfolios to downtown real estate. A less flattering part demonstrates arrogance, denial and a self-defeating civic culture whose bias for the slow-walk made a grim situation grimmer.
But its story is not hopeless, as much as an international caricature marked by dissolution, corruption, abandonment and nearly six months of Chapter 9 bankruptcy suggests. Where some see squalor and feel a tinge of Schadenfreude, others see real opportunity now and in the past.
Example: 25 years ago, a handful of auto dealers, joined by the late industrialist Heinz Prechter and then-Automotive News Publisher Keith Crain, hatched a plan to transform the Motor City’s sleepy regional auto show into an international event that became a required annual stop on the global circuit.
“It was a bold, unexpected move,” says Rod Alberts, executive director of the auto show and the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, one that used reality to change the perception of Detroit in its defining industry. “It can be done. This is a good example of it.”
Another one: Companies controlled by mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., are acquiring, rehabbing and occupying downtown real estate at a dizzying pace. The result is a changing economic ecosystem that a) is drawing me-too responses from other private investors and b) forging an entirely new paradigm slowly converting even hardened skeptics.
Detroit today is a place defined by far more than the undeniable turnarounds of General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC, or the “B” word hanging around City Hall like a municipal scarlet letter.
Here is where civic enthusiasm, business investment large and small and a growing auto industry counter-balance the frightful prospects associated with 50 years of disinvestment, population flight and miserable financial management — all of it culminating in a bankruptcy being closely watched around the country for the precedents it likely will set.
One Detroit is exemplified by the metal, rubber and sophisticated technology displayed inside a refurbished Cobo Center, itself a symbol of the rejuvenation that can occur with smart management hewing to generally accepted business practices. More, revived hometown automakers offer markers on a path to municipal sustainability for anyone willing to look closely enough.
They restructured their books, in the cases of GM and Chrysler with the help of the federal government. They changed the way they do business, demanding greater accountability for practices understood outside the Detroit bubble. They improved their products, a pre-condition to automotive success.
“Fixing the books only goes so far,” says Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “You’ve got to fix the product on the street, and the product is how people live and how business does business. It’s a direct parallel. The best way to solve a PR problem is to solve the problem.”
Put another way: The dilapidation, the exodus of Detroiters, the head-slapping “Tales of the City Council Table” aren’t news anymore, even if they are bracingly accurate, true and oddly entertaining to outsiders who might struggle to find the city on a map.
News is what’s being done to help alter the reality of Detroit and lay the foundation for a fundamental transformation beginning to unspool.
It’s automakers who are prospering again, chiefly in their home market, growing again and investing again in products, people and plants. Their revival is changing the conversation about Detroit and American manufacturing, from Wall Street to foreign capitals accustomed to seeing the U.S.-owned industry synonymous with the phrase “lost opportunity.”
It’s billions in private investment that is flowing back into the distressed city, bringing tax-paying jobs, young people and demand for rental housing the market is struggling to meet. And that doesn’t include plans for a privately financed light rail line up Woodward, planned destination retail investment there, or plans for an entertainment complex at Woodward and I-75.
It’s a discernible boost in entrepreneurship in the epicenter of Big Business, a turn from (diminishing) comforts of corporate America to the risks and rewards of ownership. The city’s bankruptcy may be harsh reality for those affected by it, but the prospect of whatever pain may come does not appear to be slowing renewed interest in Detroit.
“There is no city in the world right now that has more pent-up capital waiting to come into it as Detroit,” says Rich Baird, a senior adviser and transformation manager to Gov. Rick Snyder. “And I mean human capital as well as financial capital.”
Today’s Detroit, five years after the auto bailouts and six months into its own bankruptcy, is more than cars and crumbling buildings. Look beyond the lurid pictures, and you’ll see.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Friday