There’s a reason Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate is touting a “historic announcement affecting the future of downtown Detroit” Friday.
It’s this: adding regional offices of Microsoft Corp., as expected, to the landscape of corporate names adorning one of the buildings owned (or co-owned) by the chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. would be a huge boost to the effort to position downtown as a burgeoning tech hub.
The symbolism is unmistakable. A Microsoft presence downtown would legitimize further the argument that a new Detroit is emerging from the interwoven messes of bankruptcy, the Great Recession and City Hall corruption to become a smart place to do business, to attract talent and to be more than the Motor City.
There’s also a reason Mike Duggan is set to be on hand. The mayor, expected to announce his re-election bid Saturday at the Samaritan Center on the city’s east side, is getting an enormous boost from business and philanthropic reinvestment, none more than from Gilbert himself.
He’s not alone. Business writ large — public and private companies, higher education and cultural groups, foundations and entrepreneurs, and the small business people of restaurant and bars — is transforming this alleged capital of the Rust Belt into something that little resembles a capital of the post-war industrial economy.
A Microsoft presence would help. This is the city that Sync, a magazine for IT executives, declared “America’s Tech Hub Since 1903” and a place where “innovation never left.” It’s the city the New York Times ranked ninth on its “52 places to go in 2017” because Detroit is “set to make good on its promise.”
It’s a place some liken to a new Brooklyn, rich in character and opportunity without the high prices and insufferable attitude. Its great (and improving) food and arts scenes coexist with a global business community that has as much contact with Europe and Asia as it does Silicon Valley — and the airport to prove it.
It’s the eastern end of a transcontinental battle pitting the intellectual center of the North American auto industry against the tech heavyweights clustered along the West Coast. The prize is competitive advantage in what’s estimated to be a multi-trillion-dollar global mobility industry that marries transportation, advanced technology and emissions-free propulsion.
This is not the Detroit of, say, 2007. Nor is it the Detroit of cynicism and abandonment, disinvestment and deindustrialization that characterized too much of the past two generations and fouled a narrative only now being reshaped.
It is changing, almost weekly. When the Ilitch family’s District Detroit arena opens in the fall, Detroit will have the most concentrated major sports district in the country. Vacant Class-A office space is almost impossible to find. Retail on Lower Woodward is set to pop, and will, when the QLine begins running in a few months.
A global auto supplier like Southfield-based Lear Corp. is opening an “innovation center” in Capitol Park, injecting a little industry into the in-migration of techy players carving space in classic Detroit buildings, redone.
Oh, Detroit’s still home to General Motors Co. and suppliers like American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. It’s still home to the United Auto Workers and assembly plants that build Jeeps, Chevrolet Volts and Cadillac CT6 sedans, among other models.
The city also remains burdened with struggling public schools; neighborhoods hungry to see more abandoned homes demolished and more lots cleaned up; homeowners keen to see basic city services delivered consistently; violent and petty crime that remain all too prevalent.
But the techification of the auto industry, powered as much by emissions, fuel-economy rules and infotainment as the emerging mobility space, is creating demand for an all-new kind of employee. They’d more likely gravitate toward Silicon Valley, Austin or Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., long before considering a job in Detroit or Dearborn.
Business here — GM, Gilbert and Ford Motor Co., included — is reinvesting to play in the space because its leaders don’t have a choice. Working the technological edge is critical to success, be it in autos or manufacturing, financial services or health care. And all of them can draw talent from similar sources.
Microsoft is part of that world. So is Twitter, weapon of choice for the president of the United States. So is Gilbert’s Quicken, the nation’s leading online mortgage company. So are growing segments of the auto industry.
Adding Microsoft to the expanding mosaic of business and technology downtown is another small step in a process of reinvention that will not end anytime soon -- because there's a lot more to be done.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.