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Detroit auto show canceled as TCF Center selected for hospital overflow

Detroit — The Detroit auto show scheduled for June has been canceled after show organizers were told the TCF Center will be used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house overflow patients from hospitals that are becoming overwhelmed because of the coronavirus crisis.

"Our understanding is that TCF Center will become a 'temporary field hospital," North American International Auto Show chairman Doug North told The Detroit News.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were at the TCF Center in Detroit on Saturday to assess the facility for conversion into an alternate care facility.

"We were certainly aware that FEMA has been talking with a whole host of other sites around the country — primarily convention-type centers — so we knew this was a possibility," North said. "It didn’t become a complete reality until Saturday. It’s not a shock FEMA would want to get in here. We need to get this thing stopped as quickly as we can."

This year's event was scheduled for June 7-20 at the former Cobo Center and at nearby outside venues such as Hart Plaza. The show had traditionally been held in January but was moved to the summer to be more consumer-focused.

The announcement is another blow to Detroit's restaurant and hotel industries that already were reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 shutdown. The Detroit auto show draws thousands of visitors from around the globe to the downtown, infusing the regional economy with hundreds of millions of dollars. The next show will not be held until June 11, 2021; that's 866 days after the last show in January 2019.

"We’re hoping that this pandemic will be gone, and we can have a great show," North said. "All our partners and stakeholders were really excited. Up until the last few days, we were getting calls from companies and individuals that wanted to get involved."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been assessing at least 15 sites for patient overflow as coronavirus cases have spiked around Detroit. The Detroit District is working under FEMA at the direction of the state to assess a list of potential alternate care facilities that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office has prepared. The Army Corps was also assessing the Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center and two Wayne State University dormitories in Detroit.

The auto show's move from from January to June this year had been an effort by organizers to reinvent the show and inject more excitement. There had been a decline in the number of global automakers participating in recent years, and public attendance had been down.

With the move to summer, there were to be outdoor debuts, test rides, demonstrations of robotic cars and off-road events at the TCF Center and Hart Plaza. Rally cars were to "drift" on the rooftop of the convention center. A new event, the Motor Bella festival of Italian and British cars was to have been held outdoors on Broadway next to the Detroit Opera House.

The Charity Preview ball was to have added a more casual and less expensive “summer chic” outdoor option in addition to the event with formal dress inside the convention center. 

All tickets purchased for the 2020 show, including for the public show, industry preview and Charity Preview will be fully refunded, officials said. The ticket office will be in contact with ticket holders. Those with tickets to the charity event will have the opportunity to donate the proceeds of their refund to one of the nine beneficiaries had the event been held. NAIAS officials are discussing plans for a fundraising activity later this year to benefit those charities.

"It’s already been 18 months as of this June since our last show, so I’m hopeful we can develop something that will allow us to really try and support those charities between now and next year," North said.

The 2021 event will begin June 11-14 with the Motor Bella festival. Press days will be June 15 and 16, with the Charity Preview event June 18. The public show will run June 19-26.

"We fully support NAIAS organizers in their postponement," Mark Truby, Ford Motor Co.'s chief communications officer, said in a statement. "The health and safety of our community and those working throughout the industry is our top priority. We look forward to seeing the show's return in 2021."

General Motors Co. had been planning to “go big” for Detroit’s first summer show, said Terry Rhadigan, GM’s executive director of communications and corporate giving. GM was planning to use its Renaissance Center headquarters on the riverfront for the event put on by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association.

“We had big plans,  but it all seems rather insignificant now based on everything else that’s going on,” Rhadigan said. “[NAIAS Executive Director] Rod Alberts and the DADA have been great partners for us for decades. We are thinking about them at this difficult time and support the decision that was made.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles added: "We understand and support the decision, at this difficult time."

While the cancellation is unfortunate, Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, said it could conserve automakers' money, "which they are desperately trying to save right now."

The companies have shut down manufacturing plants in North America and elsewhere because of the outbreak, causing them to take out loans, put projects on hold and take other actions to conserve cash. GM even is deferring 20% of salaried workers' pay for up to six months with the intention of repaying them with interest later this year or early next.

"The impact of canceling the auto show is nothing compared to the impact of the coronavirus and the economic fallout," Krebs said.

Detroit is not the only city to have lost an auto show because of the coronavirus outbreak. Three days prior to the Geneva Motor Show scheduled early this month, Switzerland banned events of 1,000 people or more, forcing its cancellation. The Beijing Auto Show in April has been postponed indefinitely, and the New York International Auto Show was moved to August from April.

In 2019, the last year the Detroit show was held in January, European automakers — with the exception of Volkswagen AG — passed on the event. A used-car display from a dealer in sports cars and exotic vehicles helped fill vacant floor space.

The event drew 774,179 ticketed visitors, which was about 35,000 fewer guests than in 2018; attendance was down in part because of a major snowstorm. Despite the downturn, the show brought a $430 million boost to the regional economy — the equivalent of hosting two Super Bowls.

"There is an opportunity," North said, "to do this again next June and make it safe for everyone — and one that lets us leverage the great excitement we had for what we’re planning in June."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

khall@detroitnews.com