Howes: Decade on, Super Bowl offered glimmer of future

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Ten years ago Sunday, Super Bowl XL came to town and Detroit hasn’t been the same since.

Not because Chairman Roger Penske and the host committee he led necessarily transformed a city then still three years away from epic convulsions of corruption, bankruptcy and recession. It’s because of what Team XL proved possible through cooperation and hard work — and because of what came next.

By February 2006, the hometown automakers had begun to trace a downward spiral that would culminate in Ford Motor Co. mortgaging its entire business to survive. By the fall of 2008, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC would beg for federal bailouts, precursors to humbling bankruptcies.

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, astride Super Bowl preparations as if he owned the place, championed financial engineering that would deliver the ignominy of the nation’s largest Chapter 9 bankruptcy while he sat in federal prison, convicted of public corruption that contributed to municipal collapse.

Oh, how Detroit has changed since SBXL.

In retrospect, preparation for The Big Game proved a test case for the proposition that the city America long ago gave up for dead could coalesce, plan a show and prove itself capable of healing some of its self-inflicted wounds. It foreshadowed the past five years here — little of it contemplated back then by Super Bowl planners rightly determined to avoid making Detroit look like something it was not.

They craved authenticity, and they delivered. They wanted to embrace Detroit as it was, its snow, cold and gritty all, not create a facade too easily punctured. They identified a resilience, a competence, that would deliver for the NFL and become a template for the transformation still underway.

Times change. Instead of dressing up vacant downtown buildings to make them look occupied, the downtown core now bustles with new businesses, enthusiasm and corporate relocations few would have contemplated a decade ago.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 that Sunday 10 years ago, mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert was more than four years from moving the first wave of Quicken Loans Inc. employees downtown from offices in suburban Livonia. He planned to go big, or not at all — and he did.

Through his Bedrock Real Estate unit, Gilbert’s expanding archipelago of downtown buildings, some 80 and counting, boasts investments totaling more than $2.2 billion. A sum like that would have been incomprehensible to Super Bowl planners mulling how to present Detroit to the monied swells and media descending on their town.

Demand for residential real estate, especially quality rentals, today is soaring. Property assessments are down for the third year in a row to more accurately reflect values, the city confirmed this week, even as prices are beginning to show sustainable signs of increasing.

Oh, how Detroit has changed since SBXL.

The Ilitch family’s “District Detroit” development, years in the making, is underway. The $1.2 billion project — $900 million of it in private funds, the company says — likely will transform a 50-block area west of Woodward and north of I-75 into a massive entertainment, retail and residential zone tying the northern edges of downtown with the southern reaches of Midtown and Wayne State University.

The corporate presence downtown is expanding, not contracting, with companies like Ally Financial Inc., Fifth Third Bank, Meridian Health Plan, Lear Corp. and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, among others, consolidating offices or opening satellites in a city many of them would not have considered a decade ago.

In February 2006, little of this would have been more than a grand vision obscured by the reality of the city’s estrangement from both its business community and good ol’ financial sanity.

But the culminating weekend of that years-long Super Bowl effort demonstrated that business and civic leaders could work successfully with City Hall, that business could rally around a community event, that the courage of leadership not only matters. It produces results.

Two of the city’s leading cultural institutions — the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Michigan Opera Theatre — restructured their operations and their balance sheets. A third, the Detroit Institute of Arts, used the city’s bankruptcy to shield its collection from sale and enshrine it in a non-profit charitable trust.

Cobo Center, an annual embarrassment during auto show seasons a decade or so ago, is renovated. Aging Joe Louis Arena sits on land one of Detroit’s creditors is bound by terms of the bankruptcy’s restructuring plan to develop into a new hotel and conference center. And the M-1 rail line linking downtown to Midtown is nearing completion.

Yes, Detroit has changed a lot since SBXL — in ways that would make its organizers proud.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.