Howes: Here's what a week of winning in Detroit looks like

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Midland-based Chemical Financial Corp. is moving its headquarters to Detroit. It plans to build a 20-story headquarters at the corner of Woodward and Elizabeth Street, bringing 500 jobs into downtown.

Just another week in Detroit:

Midland-based Chemical Financial Corp., with assets totaling $20 billion, is moving its headquarters to the city, effective immediately. Roughly 100 employees already work in rented office space at the Fort Washington Plaza, a workforce expected to grow to 500 once it completes a planned 20-story office-and-parking-deck building at Elizabeth and Woodward.

Mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert’s real estate arm, Bedrock Detroit, and Woodborn Partners unveiled plans to build more than 900 rental and for-sale housing units on the old Frederick Douglass public housing site. The project, planned for a vacant 22 acres, effectively would connect the Brush Park and Eastern Market neighborhoods.

Mayor Mike Duggan and city officials detailed plans to build 367 residential units in Brush Park, yet more evidence that the reinvention of downtown is slowly spreading away from Woodward and the downtown core and beginning to revitalize neighborhoods mostly left behind.

And after 30 years, the Motor City’s event of the year, the North American International Auto Show, finally confirmed what everyone already knew. It’ll dump its January date after next year and move a reimagined show to June 2020 in hopes of stemming an industry exodus and re-energizing the show to attract consumers.

There was a time not too long ago when this kind of ferment would electrify a town so accustomed to losing that winning, just a little bit, felt unnatural. Not anymore: almost every week brings more positive development news — more housing, affordable and market-rate; more progress on hotels; major corporate plays, from the parent of Chemical Bank's move this week to Ford Motor Co.'s acquisition of the 105-year-old Michigan Central Depot.

Behind so much of it isn't Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans Inc. chairman whose downtown real estate empire is catalyzing follow-on investment. Behind it are business people who see opportunity in Detroit, an under-served market that represents potential as more people course into downtown offices buildings and new housing units.

"Yes, we love what's going on and want to be a central part of it," Chemical Chairman Gary Torgow said in an interview Thursday. "It's really a win-win. We're growing in every part of the state. Detroit was kind of a natural next move for us. We really want to strengthen in areas where we think there are business opportunities."

Detroit's gain is not Midland's loss, he added, acknowledging a debate intensifying between the city and suburbs accustomed to winning most the the new investment. The flow is reversing, but not necessarily at the expense of those left behind: Chemical's 500 employees in Midland will remain, and many of the jobs created in Detroit will be new to the company.

It's a familiar tale, actually. Of the 5,000 employees Ford expects to employ at its Corktown campus, half are expected to be new jobs. Of the 17,000 employees Gilbert's Quicken and Rock family of companies employ in the city, just 3,000 worked in the suburbs, he said. The balance — roughly 14,000 — are new hires expected to pay local and state income taxes and make the economy churn.

"It is a net gain," Gilbert said in an interview. "That's what they're missing. First of all, it's silliness that we're talking this way. Do those guys get upset when somebody moves from Southfield to Troy or Livonia? You don't hear about it, do you? Why is it Detroit that they're worried about?"

The question answers itself, Dan. Because Detroit isn't supposed to be winning again after so many years of losing. Because its government, and Wayne County a couple of blocks away, isn't supposed to be run by more competent sets of administrators. Because the generation of business leaders now making decisions often favoring Detroit came of age in the suburbs.

Which isn't to say that deep problems don't remain. Public education in Detroit so far has defied most efforts at reform. Short-sighted political dysfunction, particularly in Oakland and Macomb counties, is complicating efforts to improve regional transit and infrastructure — the No. 1 reason Amazon.com Inc. dropped metro Detroit from its list of potential second North American headquarters sites.

But here's the deal: absent an economic shock that stalls growth and idles auto sales, Detroit's momentum is more likely to accelerate than slow. Hotel projects are moving ahead. And Gilbert's Bedrock is looking for corporate tenants to plant their flag in planned developments for the J.L. Hudson's site and the Monroe Block.

You don't need me to tell you. Just look around, see what business and investors are doing with their capital, where they're putting their employees — that tells you pretty much everything you need to know.


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