Noel Night violence mars Detroit’s comeback story

George Hunter, and James David Dickson

Saturday’s quadruple shooting at the Noel Night festivities has organizers considering canceling the 45-year-old event, while others are concerned the incident could dissuade Amazon and other businesses from investing in Detroit.

The gunfire, which wounded four people, is the latest black eye for a city struggling to shed the decades-old stigma of being a dangerous place to visit. In June, two shootings left three injured at the downtown fireworks show. There also have been several recent violent episodes in Greektown, including an incident this weekend in which a man was shot in the Greektown Hotel elevator.

The latest incident is another stark reminder that for all its touted progress, Detroit remains the nation’s most violent big city. The shooting also has prompted Detroit Police Chief James Craig to consider imposing a curfew for future Noel Nights — if the event is not discontinued, which organizers say is a possibility.

“This has posed a lot of serious issues for us, and there are obviously people here concerned about security now,” said Susan Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc., which sponsors Noel Night. “Our board will look at whether to continue (the event) in January.”

Craig said animosity that started with a fight at a championship high school football game Saturday continued hours later at Noel Night. About 7:30 p.m. Saturday near the Detroit Institute of Arts, a 16-year-old boy pulled out a handgun and opened fire, wounding 14- and 16-year-old boys, a 17-year-old girl and a 19-year-old man, Craig said.

The alleged shooter is in police custody.

After the incident, police funneled thousands of people from the area before shutting down the event, which annually draws tens of thousands of people to Midtown, Wayne State University and the Cultural Center Historic District. Participating venues like the Detroit Institute of Arts were emptied.

Mosey said the shooting has event organizers wondering whether it’s worth the risk to continue it.

“This is a much bigger issue than what challenges are posed for the event,” she said. “The university and businesses had to go on lockdown; a lot of things happen when there’s a security risk.

“Midtown is very safe, and there were a couple skirmishes between school groups in the past — but the reality is, it unfortunately escalated this time, and it poses a lot of serious issues for us that the board will need to address, including deciding whether to continue the event,” Mosey said.

University of Detroit-Mercy marketing professor Michael Bernacchi said the shooting could give Amazon and other companies second thoughts about moving to Detroit.

“Let’s be real: This cannot help the efforts to rebrand Detroit as a safe city to do business,” he said. “Don’t forget: Detroit has a background. Yes, it’s old Detroit, but how long ago was it that we were called Murder City? It doesn’t take much to resurrect that.

“As for whether this will likely have an effect on Amazon (moving to Detroit): Are you kidding me? Of course it will make them think twice,” Bernacchi said.

Phone calls to Bedrock LLC and Rock Ventures, Dan Gilbert-owned companies that have been trying to convince Amazon to build its second headquarters in Detroit, were not returned Monday.

The online retail giant has announced plans to invest $5 billion and create 50,000 jobs averaging $100,000 a year and is expected to choose a headquarters site next year.

Officials have not released details of Metro Detroit’s bid for the Amazon headquarters but have touted the city’s revival, its proximity to Windsor and the potential talent available in southeast Michigan and southern Ontario.

Besides the Amazon bid, Gilbert also is involved in an effort with Pistons owner Tom Gores and Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford to land a Major League Soccer team for Detroit, which is one of four finalists for two franchises to be awarded this month.

Alexis Wiley, chief of staff for Mayor Mike Duggan, referred questions about the Noel Night incident and its potential impact to Craig.

“We’re deeply engaged in communication with the chief in every aspect of this,” Wiley said.

Craig said at a press conference Monday at police headquarters that he’s considering imposing a 10 p.m. curfew on future Noel Nights, similar to the curfews set during the annual fireworks in Hart Plaza and the three-day Angels’ Night period.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that should not have happened,” Craig said. “This is about keeping children safe.”

Detroit police have sought charges against the alleged shooter. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is expected to decide on charges by Saturday.

Craig said when he responded to the shooting, “hundreds of teens” were in the area without adult supervision.

“I think it’s time to start that conversation,” he said. “Had there been a curfew, would this have happened? Probably not.”

Craig said the shooting victims are all in stable condition.

On Monday, a Noel Night visitor who stood just feet away from the gunfire recalled what she saw that night.

Melissa Weckler, 40, was at Noel Night with her boyfriend and another couple. She’d grown up going to the event and has attended the last several. For most of the night, this year’s event was unremarkable from the others.

The group was on John R at East Warren, outside of the Michigan Science Center, when groups of teenagers appeared in the area.

Then, in a dark section of John R, a fight broke out, and a circle formed around the combatants, she said. Soon that circle broke and people started running toward the two couples.

Then, Weckler said, “it just started lighting up” — gunfire.

Weckler says she had a view of the shooter’s back.

Weckler and her boyfriend ran from the danger. The other couple hid behind a vehicle. The two groups found each other about five minutes later.

“I live in the city. I love my city,” Weckler said. “And I know her weaknesses. This showed we have great strides to make.”

Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah cautioned against putting too much weight on one violent episode.

“Certainly, any incidences of crime are unfortunate,” Baruah said. “I don’t think anyone should overreact to this one particular incident. I don’t know of an urban area that is completely sans crime. So this was unfortunate, but I think the police are addressing it. When you look at the overall numbers, the city of Detroit is making tremendous progress in the right direction on crime.”

Craig said crime citywide is trending down this year. As of Friday, he said there were 254 homicides in Detroit, down 31 — or 11 percent — from the same period in 2016. The chief added Detroit is on pace to record the lowest number of homicides in 50 years.

As of Friday, nonfatal shootings were down 12 percent, robberies down 15 percent and carjackings down 17 percent, Craig said.

However, according to FBI data released in September, violent crime in Detroit surged 15.7 percent last year. Craig disputed the FBI figures, saying violent crime dropped about 5 percent.

Either way, Detroit ranked as the nation’s most violent big city, and whether crime is going up or down, Bernacchi said Saturday’s incident will have a lasting impact.

“This has as much Velcro on it as anything can possibly have; it will stick,” he said. “Can you successfully market this away? Absolutely not. You can’t put a ribbon on this. It connects Detroit’s awful past to a questionable immediate future.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN