Detroiters come home to make connections

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The Detroit Homecoming, which kicked off Wednesday, launched three years ago with the goal of drawing back successful former residents and spurring investments.

Lily Tomlin talks with guests as she prepares to receive a key to the city. She’s one of just four celebrities to receive it.

Hall of Fame athlete Wendy Hilliard was among the participants in the first event three years ago hosted by Crain’s Detroit Business, and the experience inspired the Motor City native to expand her New York-based gymnastics program to the city. Youths now attend free and low-cost training at Joe Dumars Fieldhouse.

That’s why Hilliard and others believe Detroit Homecoming can affect countless others.

“It’s really important in the rebirth of the community,” she said Wednesday.

The fourth homecoming Wednesday featured more than 230 expatriates seeking to explore business opportunities in the city.

Since its launch in 2014, more than $300 million has been invested in city projects and businesses, coordinators said.

Building off feedback from last year’s edition, this year’s theme is connections — “connecting more Detroiters to jobs, connecting expats to our neighborhoods,” said Homecoming director Mary Kramer, a group publisher with Crain Communications. She noted attendees marveled at revitalization in downtown and Midtown “but they wanted to connect to the neighborhoods and things going on outside that 7.2 square miles.”

Expatriates on the ground floor of Michigan Central Depot for the Detroit Homecoming ceremony Wednesday.

Homecoming IV, which runs through Friday, also is scheduled to include a jobs panel, an urban entrepreneur showcase, a Qline “moveable feast” and immersion tours of several neighborhoods undergoing revitalization.

The opening night ceremony Wednesday unfolded at the long-vacant Michigan Central Depot. The iconic structure, which has symbolized the Motor City’s blight since closing as a train station in the 1980s, has undergone a face-lift in recent years.

Businessman Matthew Moroun’s family owns the building near Michigan Avenue and has invested millions to overhaul it, including installing 1,000 windows starting in 2015.

Moroun has estimated renovations at the 18-story facility could cost more than $100 million.

For years, the owners “have taken many broadsides about the depot, its condition, our plans for it and our refusal to demolish,” Moroun told the Homecoming guests. However, he said, today, “demolition is unthinkable. And the only question is when and how this building is going to be developed. Tonight starts a new chapter.”

About 20 protesters gathered outside the train station as Moroun began to address the Homecoming crowd. Demonstrators protested the affluent, invite-only event.

“You have millionaires in there listening to the billionaire owner of this big empty building,” said Abayomi Azikiwe, who was with the Moratorium Now coalition. “And here were are, real Detroiters, standing outside asking, ‘Where is the comeback for the rest of us?’ ”

Protesters remained outside for the rest of the program, chanting and carrying signs such as “Detroit Is Not For Sale” and “Gentrification is the new colonialism.”

The demonstrators wanted to highlight problems in the city such as water shutoffs, foreclosures and educational disparities, activist Meeko Williams said. “We’re trying to have a dialogue. This is very telling of two Detroits.”

Wednesday’s opening also featured Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan giving comedian and actress Lily Tomlin a key to the city.

She joins only three other celebrities — Stevie Wonder, Big Sean and Aretha Franklin — who have received the honor and is a “national treasure,” the mayor said.

Tomlin, who graduated from Cass Technical High School, said she appreciated the recognition and loves keeping ties with the Motor City.

“I have so many feelings about Detroit and I’m really proud that I am from here,” she said before joining a fireside chat. “It’s one of the great cities and I had the great luxury of growing up here.”

Staff Writer Louis Aguilar contributed.