Chemical Bank to pay $33M to rename Cobo Center

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Cobo Center.

Detroit — Ten years after custody of the struggling Cobo Center transferred to a regional authority, the 59-year-old Detroit landmark has a new identity of fiscal responsibility — and a new name.

The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority said Wednesday it had struck a $33-million deal with Chemical Bank to rename one of the largest convention centers in the United States.

Chemical Bank CEO Tom Shafer said the company will pay $1.5 million annually over 22 years for the naming rights. Should the bank's merger with TCF Financial Corp. close pending shareholder and regulatory approval, the center's name would be the TCF Center.

The announcement comes as the convention center's name has come under fire for policies its namesake Albert E. Cobo enacted as mayor of Detroit in the 1950s that some have called racist. A new name will be finalized by the end of 2019.

Gary Torgow, chairman of Chemical Bank Corp., addresses attendees from the podium as his executives, from left, David Provost, Tom Shafer and Donnell White stand with him on stage as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer applaud with other VIPs.

"We know the name that is coming off this building is synonymous with division," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said during the announcement. "And right now, in our country and in our state, I know we have enough division. It's time for us to move forward together, to build bridges, to do so in a way that ensures everyone has opportunity.

"That's something that is happening here today. It's not simply a name change of a building in the great city of Detroit. This is about the next chapter for Michigan, this is about opportunity for all, no matter who you are, and being inclusive in that."

Larry Alexander, the authority's chairman, said the change will "right a wrong."

"We selected the absolute best company, which is located right here in Detroit, Chemical Bank," Alexander said, "which is the right fit for a true partnership."

The bank's investment further signals its commitment to the city of Detroit since Chemical Financial Corp. said in July it would move its headquarters from Midland to downtown.

"(Cobo is) an iconic center in Detroit and the region and the state and the country," Chemical Financial Chairman Gary Torgow said. "For us to be associated with our name and our company and our folks to be here, it’s just a great honor, and we look forward to continue doing the great things Larry Alexander and the regional authority have done."

The merger would move the new TCF Bank's base of operations from Wayzata, Minnesota, to the 20-story, $60-million building Chemical is designing at Elizabeth Street and Woodward Avenue. The combined company would hold $45 billion in assets, making it one of the largest banks in the country.

The merger is expected to be completed in the third or fourth quarter of 2019, though convention center visitors can expect to see changes even sooner. Alexander said the Cobo sign on the building and the bust of the former mayor will be removed in the coming weeks. Digital signs around the center will display Cobo's and Chemical's logos in the meantime.

The authority hired firms in August 2017 to search for clients to buy the rights to name the center. An initial 20 companies from the region and nationally, including businessman Dan Gilbert's Rock Ventures LLC and Quicken Loans Inc., were identified as possibilities, Alexander said. Eight held presentations before the authority.

The deal also creates a partnership between the two organizations, Shafer said, that could lead to co-branding events and other opportunities.

Built by the city and opened in 1960, the 723,000-square-foot convention center, first known as Cobo Hall, was named after former Mayor Albert E. Cobo.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan raised the prospect of the name change during a speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference last year. Duggan, a Democrat, has said that the tenure of Cobo, a Republican, was about "government by exclusion."

"I'm not a great believer that you've got to change every street name or building name in your country or city because of the city, but the Cobo era was marked by the wiping out of African-American neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal," Duggan said. "It was an era that displaced African-American families in a way that was discriminatory and callous. The tensions from those eras still reverberate in the city of Detroit today, and I didn't believe that our civic center in its name should we celebrate that era.

"We're going to have a Detroit bank committed to Detroit neighborhoods whose name will now adorn this gem, and I couldn't be more pleased."

Calls to purge Cobo’s name from the facility arose as cities across the country began debating the fate of controversial statues in public places. At the same time, the convention center’s board said it had been exploring the option of marketing naming rights for nearly a year before Duggan raised the idea.

Cobo was Detroit’s mayor from 1950 until he died of a heart attack on Sept. 12, 1957, while completing his final two-year term. He was 63.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Chemical Bank Corp. Chairman Gary Torgow listen to another speaker.

The businessman has been heavily criticized for spearheading urban renewal projects that razed black neighborhoods. He was challenged throughout his career by civil rights groups that accused him of moving too slowly in response to harassment and police brutality against the city’s black residents and for continuing the city’s longstanding housing segregation policy.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans gave credit to Duggan for leading the advocacy efforts to remove Cobo's name from the building.

"They can’t take the name fast enough for me in terms of the history and the city of Detroit," Evans said. "We had vibrant African-American neighborhoods in this city until Albert Cobo destroyed them and did it at a time when the rest of the city wasn’t receptive to black residents either."

Mixed reception

Many Detroiters such as 35-year-old DJuan Hartsfield said they had no idea about the history behind the name.

"It's enlightening," Hartsfield said. "But I've always had positive experiences at Cobo. It's where we would go and hang out and go to the Detroit auto show. That's something, I think, that resonates will a lot more people in this generation. ... Detroit has undergone a lot of change, but there's some things that shouldn't change like Cobo's name."

Cliff Johnson said he wonders where changes like this ends. The 47-year-old Detroiter said he has worked in parks where statues have faced similar scrutiny.

"If you do one, you have to do them all," he said. "They named it for a man they thought helped the city. Do you keep it named after a mayor of Detroit or name it after some company?"

Others expressed a similar sentiment: "It's all about commercialization," said Amy Bonanno, 47, of Sterling Heights.

Still some residents of Metro Detroit are hopeful that such a partnership could bring further investment and attention to the downtown.

"It's the way things are going," said Chris Gazdag, 37, of Canton. "If it pours money into Cobo, then that sounds like a good thing."

Chemical's efforts

Chemical Financial Chairman Torgow said, a Detroit native, has led efforts to invest in the city and its neighborhoods. Since 2014, Chemical's leadership has pledged $1 million over five years to help renovate homes in the neighborhood surrounding Marygrove College. It also offers up to $2,500 in closing cost assistance to low- and moderate-income households in the city.

In December, Chemical joined six other corporations to pledge $5 million each over five years to the city's Strategic Neighborhood Fund for affordable housing, parks and more. The bank also plans to add neighborhood branches in Detroit.

NAACP Detroit branch President Rev. Wendell Anthony praised Torgow's vision and character, noting the chairman serves as a senior corporate chair for the group. The NAACP holds an event in Cobo Center every spring and will hold its national convention here in July.

"This center being renamed in Black History Month, you’re making some more history," Anthony said. "This center being renamed, it’s not a renaming; it's a reclaiming, a reclaiming a sensitivity of community, of bringing people together."

The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, a board comprised of five representatives from the state of Michigan, the city of Detroit and Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, took over operations of the struggling venue from the city at the end of 2009.

Since then, the center has undergone a $279 million renovation and now attracts 1.5 million visitors annually from events such as the North American International Auto Show, which also will bring a new experience to the center when it moves from January to June next year.

In the 2018 fiscal year, the authority ran a profit of about $400,000, not counting its state subsidy. That's a departure from the one-time drain on the city finances of $21 million annually. The authority's goal is to make the facility self-sustaining by 2024.

"We will continue to make this center," Torgow said, "a vibrant destination not only for this region but for the United States and the world."