Howes: Detroit empire builder’s vision for jail district builds buzz, begins bargaining
More than five years ago, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert vowed to go big with his vision for Detroit — or not go at all.
In a single day Wednesday, the downtown empire builder orchestrated a splash to show just how big big could be. He moved another step closer to realizing reality on the long-vacant Hudson’s site, and he launched a power play for the stalled Wayne County jail site to build a $1 billion sports-and-entertainment district anchored by a would-be Major League Soccer franchise.
Brash, that, but vintage Gilbert. First, do the homework. Second, share the vision to generate public enthusiasm. Third, turbo-charge it with the prospect of another downtown sports venue. And, fourth, back it all with a wallet that so far has invested roughly $2.2 billion buying and renovating some 90 buildings and doing most of it with cash.
By now, the vision motivating what critics call “Gilbertville” is clear: use private capital to make downtown a hot place to live, work and play. Make Detroit a city that works again, a city transforming itself from a mid-20th century industrial hulk into a next-century hub of entrepreneurship and, yes, redemption.
There will be grumbling. There will be whispers that Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate arm and his big thinkers are City Hall’s de facto economic development operation. There will be questions on how Gilbert, a billionaire, can pay for it all. And there will be criticism because this is Detroit, where practiced cynicism too often is too slow to acknowledge a demonstrated track record.
Why do it all on a single day? To generate buzz around an idea. To coalesce constituencies — City Hall, the state, the Downtown Detroit Partnership, the public — necessary to make big ideas become reality. To drive a process, at least as it concerns the county jail, driven by a political timetable and the need for cold, hard numbers needed for negotiation.
“Hopefully today we unleashed the vision,” Matt Cullen, CEO of Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, said in an interview. “If you can get the vision going then people are like, ‘That’s what we should have, that’s what we should be.’ But it has to work for everybody.”
He added: “You do the riverfront. You do M-1” rail. “But when you kind of coalesce behind the vision, people try to make it work within their own constructs. At major inflection points in our city, we’ve made the right call and look at the outcome. This is one of those inflection points.”
Yes, it probably is. And it comes at a time — after the city’s epic bankruptcy, amid a middling economic expansion — that captures a new Zeitgeist in Detroit: Cool stuff that creates jobs, generates tax revenue and improves quality of life is doable here.
There are no guarantees Gilbert’s latest idea for the jail district will become reality. He needs to craft a deal that won’t cost Wayne County taxpayers more than their orphaned jail project on Gratiot. He needs to be prepared to cover the higher cost of building a county jail-and-courthouse project, estimated to be at least $100 million, on Mound Road.
He and his partner, Pistons owner Tom Gores, need to persuade Major League Soccer that downtown Detroit and the surrounding market would support a franchise. The case shouldn’t be hard to make given the appearance of the MLS commissioner in town Wednesday and the fact that the two most prominent guys pushing the deal for Detroit are NBA owners.
The largest obstacle: Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. His willingness to support Gilbert’s jail site vision for the “front door” to downtown, a vision he readily says he does not dismiss, depends on two conditions grounded in financial reality.
First, that the move to Mound Road does not cost taxpayers more than the original Gratiot price tag of $300 million, a legacy of the bumbling Ficano years. And, second, that the county’s timetable for moving ahead with the jail by early fall is not slowed by protracted negotiations.
“It’s a full-court press,” Evans said of the Gilbert & Co.’s decision to make the plan public just hours after the county exec learned of the proposed project in a Quicken conference room. In attendance at the 11 a.m. meeting were Gilbert, Cullen, Mayor Mike Duggan, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and a representative of Gores, among others.
“I don’t care what happens to that site,” Evans continued. “I care what happens to the Wayne County budget and to the taxpayers. Whatever the gap is is a gap” Gilbert and his associates “are going to have to cover. We’re on course to finish the jail on Gratiot. We’re not slowing down because of the full-court press I’m getting hit with now.”
Will both the Hudson’s project and Gilbert’s jail vision become reality? Probably, if only because the Hudson’s effort is Gilbert’s first big chance to build something of his own in the heart of his downtown empire.
The jail sports-and-entertainment district, too. Today’s Detroit is more about making the possible happen, especially when backed by financial heft, political clout and folks who can see with their own eyes how things keep changing — for the better.
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.