Detroit’s Amazon bid may become blueprint for downtown

Louis Aguilar, and Christine Ferretti

Detroit — Amazon may have told Detroit no, but the city’s detailed pitch to the company may end up becoming the blueprint for downtown and regional growth, say Mayor Mike Duggan and Dan Gilbert, the billionaire businessman who played a leading role in shaping the Motor City’s bid.

And Amazon’s rejection hopefully will revive efforts for improved regional mass transit and boost efforts to retain young talent, others said Thursday.

Duggan allowed Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures, to take charge of the Amazon pitch. Gilbert and a small group of his employees, along with city officials, assembled 59 regional leaders that included the CEO of General Motors Co., university presidents and Windsor’s mayor to be members of the bid committee.

Detroit’s official 242-page pitch to Amazon was specific in detailing the buildings,streets and blocks — both in downtown and Windsor — that could be used for the company’s estimated 50,000 workers. The state of Michigan offered potential tax breaks for 30 years along with a $120 million program for workforce training.

That vision and regional cooperation will be put to use despite Amazon’s rejection, various leaders said.

“The lessons we learned in the Amazon process will help make us more successful on a number of other major potential investments that we are currently pursuing,” Duggan said in a statement released Thursday. “We're going right back to work today to work on those other projects.”

Gilbert also said last week the Amazon bid could be used a guide for downtown and regional growth.

“Of course … factors can change. Time itself changes,” he said. “But I think directionally, for sure. We spent a lot of time with a lot of smart people.”

Officials say for Detroit to be competitive in the future, it must address the issues raised by Amazon.

Mass transit was identified as a weakness in Detroit’s bid by an Amazon official. The city’s 242-page pitch has a two-page graphic called “Regional Transit Strategy. The graphic is the main section touting the region’s mass transit.

The graphic highlights the new express bus routes that link downtown with Detroit Metropolitan Airport and several suburbs. It features the QLine, the streetcar line covering 3.3 miles of the downtown area.

The graphic also features mass transit plans that may or may not become reality.

There’s the proposed express commuter rail from downtown Detroit to downtown Ann Arbor, an idea that was rejected by voters in a 2016 regional transit tax proposal.

There’s the Detroit Windsor water taxi, a plan that received $2 million in federal money during the Obama administration eight years ago but has become reality.

And there’s an image of a QLine extension that will travel to the border of Detroit and Ferndale; a plan that’s in its early stages.

“We should probably be taking this as a wake-up call that true effective mass transit needs to become a reality in this area,’ said Ken Cockrel Jr., a former Detroit mayor who was also a longtime city councilmember.

“Mass transit has divided the region for years. The message something like this sends is that if really want to compete, what we have done so far is not going to work if we are trying to attract big players like Amazon.”

When it comes to attracting a talented young workforce, the bid highlighted the total number of workers downtown age 29 or below has grown by 38 percent from 2010 to 2015. It also pointed that half of its downtown’s residential population is age 18-39.

Cockrel and others said the longtime challenge for the city is that many young, single workers move to the suburbs when they start to raise families.

“Detroit doesn’t have a problem in attracting young professionals. Our real problem lies in keeping them,” Cockrel said.

That has to do with the city’s public school systems and public safety issues, Cockrel and others said Thursday.

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN