Detroit — As cities across the country debate whose legacies should be enshrined in public places, Mayor Mike Duggan is questioning whether Cobo Center should continue to bear the name of a polarizing figure in the city’s history.
The mayor discussed the matter Thursday with the chairman of the board of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, which oversees the convention center at a time when the authority is independently exploring the option of marketing Cobo’s naming rights.
“The mayor has spoken to Larry Alexander and expressed to him his strong support for changing the name of the convention center and urged him to do it as soon as they are able to,” mayoral spokesman John Roach said Friday.
Built by the city of Detroit and opened in 1960, the convention center — then dubbed Cobo Hall — was named after former Mayor Albert E. Cobo.
Cobo, who served as the city’s mayor from 1950 until his death in 1957, was a controversial figure who led the “Detroit Plan,” which displaced thousands of African-Americans by leveling the Black Bottom neighborhood to make way for Interstate 75.
Critics believe that displacement later contributed to the overcrowding and tensions of the neighborhood near 12th and Clairmount — the area that sparked five days of civil unrest and rioting in July 1967.
Duggan, a Democrat, has nothidden his feelings about Cobo, a Republican. Duggan even criticized him during his speech at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference in May.
“We elected a mayor ... who chose a campaign of racial divisiveness,” he said during the keynote speech. “He ran the kind of ‘us versus them’ that has done so much damage to Detroit.”
Alexander on Friday did not specifically address the issue of Cobo’s name.
“We are fulfilling our obligation with the guidance of the Legislature of the State of Michigan — in keeping with our responsibility to be good financial stewards — to do everything we can to make Cobo Center a financially self-sustaining facility,” he said in a statement.
The authority was created in 2009 to operate Cobo Center and its 623,000 square feet of exhibition space under a long-term lease with the city. It’s overseen by a five-member regional board.
Duggan’s request comes a week after the authority signed a contract with the Birmingham-based Fulkerson Group and Connect Partnership Group of Austin, Texas, to market naming rights for Cobo Center. Naming rights could generate between $1 million to $6 million annually for the center, officials say.
The authority has been working on the plan for almost a year, said Lisa Canada, a board member for the authority.
“Our intention to change the name was never for any other reason than to increase our revenue to find somebody who wanted their name on it,” she said. “We spent a long time finding the vendor we felt would get us the most revenue and also keep in mind that Cobo needs to be careful and choose something that reflects the values of the city and the region.”
No other entity other than the authority would be involved in the naming rights process, Canada said.
Duggan’s proposal comes at a time when the country is grappling with whether to remove monuments to Confederate leaders and other historical figures accused of wrongdoing, such as Christopher Columbus, slave trader Peter Faneuil and former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo.
Cobo was an interesting political figure, historian Ken Coleman said.
“He deserves credit for leading the effort to revitalize and reshape downtown Detroit, the civic center area,” Coleman said. “But also, most specifically, why he’s being discussed is he certainly led the effort in building a world-class convention center, which was named after him after he died of a fatal heart attack.
“On the other hand, he had hostile policy and actions toward the African-American community. He oversaw the razing of Black Bottom in the city where 75 percent to 80 percent of all African Americans in the city lived in that lower east side community.”
Coleman said Cobo won the 1949 election by siding with hostile white neighborhood organizations set against blacks living in their neighborhoods.
“You couple the razing of Black Bottom with policies that would not allow African-Americans to move to certain parts of the city, and you can just imagine the terrible effect it had on lots of African-Americans in this city,” Coleman said.
Coleman, who said he is in support of conversations to rename Cobo Center, said more attention might have been drawn to Cobo’s history with recent efforts to revitalize such areas as Harmonie Park/Paradise Valley.
State Sen. Coleman Young II, who is running against Duggan for mayor, said Friday the mayor is focusing on the wrong issues. He said Duggan should instead focus on the number of residents living in poverty, Detroiters who can’t find employment in the city and violence.
When asked if Cobo Center should be renamed, Young replied “of course it needs to be.”
“I think it’s a ploy to convince the people of Detroit that they care what’s going on, and they just don’t,” Young said. “Stop playing with people’s emotions. That’s what he’s doing all day. We have real issues we are dealing with. If it’s not something that serves these corporate masters, he doesn’t care about it.”
Detroiters near Cobo Center had a range of reactions Friday afternoon.
“It’s been Cobo for so long. It makes sense to change it because, obviously, segregation is awful, but are we going to change all the buildings and statues in Detroit?” said Cassandra Mates of Detroit. “If it’s changed, it should be called Unity Hall.”
Sidni Smith of Detroit disagreed: “I only know it as Cobo Hall. It has been Cobo Hall my whole life. There’s no point in changing it now.”
Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed.