It's official: Cobo's new name is TCF Center

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — A new name for the city's convention center marks a new era that officials hope will hold a more inclusive and prosperous future.

Bank and communities leaders on Tuesday declared the TCF Center as the new name of the Cobo Center. The 59-year-old downtown event facility's identity change breaks its ties to a former Detroit mayor whose policies some have called racist as the city focuses its efforts on expanding the revitalization of Detroit to include more of its residents, about 80% of whom are black.

Gina Peoples, right, of Detroit, a volunteer with The Parade Company, takes a selfie Monday in front of the newly named TCF Center in downtown Detroit.

"Today a name of the past comes down from these walls," TCF Financial Chairman Gary Torgow said, "and we proudly and honorably replace it with a name that stands for community and inclusion and a powerful future for everyone who is associated with it."

Detroit-based Chemical Financial Corp. in February acquired the naming rights to the once-struggling center in a 22-year, $33 million deal for building maintenance and improvements. The bank postponed announcing a name at the time because of its pending merger with Minnesota-based TCF Financial Corp. The deal closed earlier this month, creating a combined company under the TCF Bank brand headquartered in Detroit with a top 10 deposit market share in the Midwest.

The bank did not consider any other name, according to Tom Shafer, TCF's chief operating officer, who said the move will help to increase the bank's name recognition locally, nationally and internationally as well as mark the company's commitment to the city.

The partnership also allows for co-branded events and creates another ambassador in TCF for the convention center, said Larry Alexander, chairman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority that manages the center.

"There's a really positive future ahead for the TCF Center," Alexander said. "We're looking at another expansion. We think there's more that can be done."

The former name of the 723,000-square-foot facility that annually ranks as a top 10 convention center in the Midwest came under fire for policies Albert E. Cobo enacted as mayor of Detroit in the 1950s.

"What’s in a name?" asked the Rev. Wendell Anthony, the NAACP Detroit branch president. "Quite frankly — everything. Names conjure up images of character and behavior and help to identify who you are and what you may stand for.

"...The name Cobo after Mayor Albert Cobo in August 1960, as been stated, is not one that has brought to this convention center the level of respect and appreciation of all Detroiters. Now some 60 years later (it) has reminded us of an era we seek to want to keep in the past, never to be resurrected in the future, even though there are those today who are seeking to take us back to a period of division and discrimination."

Built by the city and opened in 1960, the convention center, first known as Cobo Hall, was named after the former mayor who died in office of a heart attack on Sept. 12, 1957, after being elected to his first term in 1949. He was 63.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan raised the prospect of Cobo's 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."

"This center has been named for an individual who was responsible for policies that moved large numbers of African-Americans out of their homes, out of their businesses, who had no place to go, in the name of urban renewal," Duggan said Tuesday. "The pain of that time still reverberates in this city today."

"...From now on, this center will bear the name of an institution committed to rebuilding the city in a way that includes everybody."

Calls to purge Cobo’s name from the facility arose as movements across the country began to remove from public spaces the names and statues of historic leaders whose actions do not meet today's politically correct standards. 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.

Following the naming rights deal announced in February, the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority removed the bold red letters on the building and a bust of Mayor Cobo. Since then, digital signs had displayed both the Chemical and Cobo logos. Now, a sign next to the building's jumbotron displays the TCF logo.

Cobo, a businessman-turned-politician, has been 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.

It is important "that as people come to the city of Detroit that they have a great first impression, that they have an opportunity to attend an event in a place that is named after an organization that is really dedicated to moving the city forward," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Tuesday. "That is showing leadership that is truly inclusive and creates opportunity."

A block party hosted by TCF kicked off at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday outside the convention center open to all Detroiters — a signal for a more inclusive future. The event, which features free food, games, face painting, live music and bus rides downtown, ends at 6 p.m.

"I think it's good because of all of the racial tensions," said Donald Hollins, 27, of Detroit. He added that with some small businesses struggling because of construction on Livernois Avenue, how policy affects a community is a conversation that must continue.

Others, however, felt the change was not needed: "It's just a name," said Alan Longworth, 24, of Detroit. "Do people really associate (Cobo) with that?"

Patty Waling of Willis said she was unfamiliar with the history of the Cobo name before the controversy arose. "I thought, yeah, it's time to change," the 61-year-old manager said. "Unfortunately, I'll probably always call it Cobo."

Duggan's administration in recent months has placed a growing emphasis on expanding the economic comebacks of downtown and Midtown to the city's neighborhood, especially through the Strategic Neighborhood Fund that uses private and public money for affordable housing, parks, small business subsidies and more.

In December, Torgow brought together seven companies to pledge $5 million each over five years to neighborhoods that the fund had identified as prime for economic development.

"When we’ve had tough times in Detroit, Gary Torgow has been there," U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said of the Detroit native. "He is one of the visionaries and the leaders that have helped to bring back not only downtown but support what is happening in the neighborhoods."

Larry Alexander, left, president and CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau and chair of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, welcomes Gary Torgow, right, executive chairman of TCF Financial Corporation, to the podium Tuesday.

The TCF name now on Detroit's convention center represents a corporation that is one of the 50 largest banks in the country with $47 billion in assets and is growing its presence in the city. Chemical Bank in July 2018 said it was moving its headquarters to Detroit from Midland as it became the primary banking partner for the management of the city's operating deposit accounts.

The Detroit Regional Convention Facility 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. Eight held presentations before the authority.

TCF will move as a long-term tenant into a $105 million 20-story, mixed-use tower expected to break ground soon at Woodward and West Elizabeth near Comerica Park, bringing up to 500 workers with it come 2022. In the meantime, the bank has office space at 333 W. Fort St., the only branch right now it has in the city that will be under the Chemical Bank brand until the third quarter of 2020 when its divisions will merge. A TCF ATM also has been added to the convention center.

The company has said it will open neighborhood branches in Detroit. A group is working on identifying locations, and the hope is to have an announcement within the next year, TCF's Shafer said. A "mobile empowerment" bus, for now, is visiting Detroit's neighborhoods to provide financial education and guidance.

Torgow has led other 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.

Cobo's name change represents a fresh beginning for the center, whose custody transferred to the regional authority 10 years ago.

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 for events such as the North American International Auto Show, which also will bring a new experience to the center when it moves to June from January 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.