Gilbert to DC audience: Detroit must expand transit

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Quicken Loans founder and owner Dan Gilbert told a Washington, D.C., audience that Amazon’s decision to reject Detroit for its second headquarters shows that the city still has a lot of work to rebuild its national reputation.

Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert

Speaking at the Economic Club of Washington and then with reporters afterward, Gilbert said Detroit will have to improve its public transportation system, but he said he wholeheartedly believes the city has enough talent to attract large technology companies.

“A lot of people were blaming it on talent and transportation. I definitely believe the transportation thing,” said Gilbert, who worked on Detroit’s Amazon bid. “But talent, there’s all sorts of talent. We’re Detroit ... people come... This generation in particular, when I talk to them, they want to impact the outcome of the world. We’re a big sort of magnet.”

Gilbert added that there will be future opportunities for Detroit to sell itself to potential employers and event coordinators as a top destination. But he said the city’s national reputation that was cemented before its high-profile bankruptcy will be difficult to overcome unless potential suitors are able to experience it now for themselves.

“I think it’s reputation,” he said. “No matter what I say up here or to any of you, 50 to 60 years of negative reputations, unheard of in the annals of American history about a major city, is not going to be overcome by my words. But when I get you there, just give me 90 minutes. We’ll have a whole different deal.”

Speaking with reporters after the event, Gilbert said Detroit will have to boost its public transportation system if it wants to remain competitive in attracting younger workers.

“I think it’s clear,” he said. “You do all these surveys. (Amazon has) done their own surveys, too. It’s almost consistently whenever you talk to someone who is under 30, 35 years old, getting around a city, mass transportation seems to be (important).”

Gilbert cautioned that public transportation improvements will not be a magic bullet for Detroit, noting “there’s a lot of cities that made that 20 cities that didn’t necessarily have that.

“It’s hard to know exactly” why Amazon passed on Detroit, Gilbert said. But the city would be wise to remove a lack of transit access as an impediment.

“I just believe in it for urban cores, period,” he said. “I think it’s smart. I think it’s an investment that will come back many times over if a community is willing to make it.”

Gilbert noted that a ballot initiative to fund a Regional Transit Authority was narrowly defeated in 2016.

“That lost 50-point-something to 49-point-something, whatever that is,” he said. “By less than 1 percent. That was a year and a half ago. It will probably be back on the ballot again coming up sometime later this year or maybe next year. Hopefully we get that, because we have the RTA, the legal structure, but now we have to fund it.”

Gilbert also told reporters that hosting either the Democratic or Republican conventions during the next round of presidential nominating contests in 2020 could be among the opportunities that Detroit becomes a contender for in the near future.

“There’s definitely been talk of that,” he said. “I would think in the next few months it either ramps up or it doesn’t, from what I heard. But I was so focused on Amazon, I’ve haven’t shifted over. There’s opportunities coming daily. You heard the ones like Apple, even Google. There’s a lot of stuff happening. Not quite on the scale of Amazon, but every day there’s opportunities.”

Gilbert also dismissed rumors of his intent to sell the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers, which he has owned since 2005.

“Totally and completely made up,” he said of the rumors.. “If you believe in fake news, that would be categorized in that category.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing