Howes: Gilbert gambits drive private-sector investment

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

If Mayor Mike Duggan's new best friend isn't Dan Gilbert, he should be.

The mortgage impresario's latest downtown real estate gambit puts the iconic One Detroit Center squarely back in local hands. More importantly, it delivers to lower Woodward another corporate headquarters with auto industry chops and national brand awareness.

That's not all. The downtown consolidation of Ally Financial Inc. into a crown jewel of Gilbert's burgeoning empire underscores just how critical private-sector investment is to Duggan's effort to keep engineering the city's post-bankruptcy restructuring.

The result: a virtuous circle in a town that defined the municipal downward spiral for more than 40 years. However much the latest moves elicit more cynicism about downtown becoming "Gilbertville" — and you can bet they do — only the willfully deluded would argue the failures of the past are preferable to the success of the present.

Ally Financial CEO Jeff Brown, Quicken Loans/ Rock Ventures Chairman Dan Gilbert , and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan answer questions after announcing the move of 1,500 Ally employees into One Detroit Center, which will be renamed Ally Detroit Center, during a press conference in the lobby of the building in Detroit, Michigan on March 31, 2015.

Just ask the mayor. Or the business leaders who witnessed decades of flight from downtown and the hits to Detroit's image. Or the suburban pols, like Oakland County's L. Brooks Patterson, who grew accustomed to counting corporate headquarters as steadfast members of their business community.

Not anymore. Downtown is proving to be a powerful draw to business types hungry to share in the action, to would-be residents willing to pay rising prices and steep tax bills for downtown living, to anyone eager to be part of a historic rebound.

Ally's new CEO, Jeffrey Brown, said as much this week when he admitted that the finance company's move downtown is expected to be more expensive than staying in Southfield — proving that energy can have a value all its own.

The confluence of Gilbert's empire-building, its positive reverberations in the business community here and around the country, and a post-bankruptcy bounce in image and momentum, are giving Duggan and his team the kind of political fortune money simply cannot buy.

Fortune magazine names the mayor — of Detroit, no less — one of its "world's greatest leaders." Wall Street heavyweights from JP Morgan Chase's Jamie Dimon to Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein bet (if small, scale-wise) on entrepreneurship in the city.

The foundations that underwrote half of the "grand bargain" to bolster city pensions and protect the Detroit Institute of Arts in Chapter 9 bankruptcy continue to support efforts in Detroit and its neighborhoods, chiefly because they see the right attitudes in City Hall and the business community.

Propelling the enthusiasm and forward motion are a business activism and friendliness, in rhetoric and in deed, that has been all too rare in official Detroit for way too long. But it's not guaranteed to stay that way.

The challenge for the mayor and his team is to not take for granted the status quo. Don't assume the business cycle will continue to spin upward; don't forget the pain of the auto industry implosion, the embarrassment of bankruptcy, or how quickly business powerhouses can become weaklings.

And don't tie the city's economic development strategy too tightly to Gilbert's agenda, lest it alienate other would-be investors looking for some action in one of the most under-valued major cities in the nation.

The city needs all the investment help it can get. In housing in the downtown core and in Midtown. In neighborhoods still waiting for signs of the city's post-bankruptcy restructuring on their streets. In developing retail that remains more promise than reality.

Even Gilbert, with his prodigious fortune and expansive vision, cannot do it all; nor should he, or the Ilitch family a little further up Woodward, be expected to. They, and other corporate players, are necessary to fueling the city's economic revival, but they are not sufficient.

Detroit is accustomed to being a heavyweight town. For decades, its hometown automakers called the economic shots and set priorities. City Hall saluted, the business community followed and too many paid the price when things imploded.

The global financial meltdown, the auto bankruptcies and the emergence of a new generation of business leadership changed that balance of power, mostly for the good.

But it didn't fully sate the expectation for heavyweights to drive the economic agenda. In this town, there's room to play for anyone with capital, vision and an appetite for risk — and Detroit needs them all.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at