Gilbert: Detroit’s image, not talent hurt Amazon bid

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s the city’s negative reputation, not a lack of talent that knocked it out of the running for an Amazon headquarters, Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert contends in a newly released letter.

Dan Gilbert said Detroit’s nasty reputation associated with the post-bankruptcy city’s 50-plus years of decline is to blame on losing out on Amazon.

Gilbert, in a Wednesday tweet, shared a letter he sent on Tuesday to the 60-plus member bid committee who crafted Detroit’s pitch to the Seattle-based online retail giant.

“We are all disappointed,” Gilbert wrote of the city not making the cut for the top 20 finalists but urged members not to accept the “conventional belief” the city fell short because of its challenges with regional transportation and attracting talent.

The “elephant in the room,” he wrote, is the nasty reputation associated with the post-bankruptcy city’s 50-plus years of decline.

“Old, negative reputations do not die easily. I believe this is the single largest obstacle that we face,” he wrote. “Outstanding state-of-the-art videos, well-packaged and eye-catching proposals, complex and generous tax incentives and highly compelling and improving metrics cannot nor will not overcome the strong negative connotations that the Detroit brand still needs to conquer.”

Gilbert’s letter comes days after Amazon slimmed its list of contenders from more than 200 bids it received in the fall.

Regional leaders said they were told inadequate mass transit and questionable ability to attract talent were the top reasons that hurt the city’s bid. The city of Detroit on Wednesday declined to weigh in on Gilbert’s letter, as did Wayne County.

Gilbert stressed only Amazon knows all of the factors that went into its decision.

In an email to The News, Adam Sedo, a spokesman for Amazon, reiterated that all proposals were evaluated based on the criteria outlined in the company’s request for proposals, as noted in its news release last Thursday.

The region, he agrees, would benefit from addressing its workforce development and K-12 challenges. But Gilbert insists that the narrative of a talent shortage in the region is “simply untrue.”

Gilbert noted about 52 million people and numerous educational institutions are within a five-hour drive of downtown Detroit. In comparison, Seattle has 12 million people and fewer universities and colleges within the same five-hour drive.

“The talent we need is here, close by, across the state, across the country, and across the world,” he said. “It’s because of this very reason that the talent in Southeast Michigan is a strength, and getting stronger.”

As for transportation, it needs to be addressed. But Detroit, Gilbert said, isn’t the only city that lacks mass transit. Others that also fall short in that category have advanced, he said.

“What became crystal clear to us from countless surveys, discussions, observations, studies, and even Amazon itself, is that having a strong mass transit solution is the ante to play for a millennial workforce, as well as for the most successful and dynamic companies in the world,” he wrote.

Amazon, he said, conducted an internal survey of their employees, and the results showed that the ability to move seamlessly around a city with strong mass transit was a critical priority.

“Companies like Amazon and their employee base require dynamic and reliable transit,” Gilbert wrote. “If we are determined to attract exciting opportunities to metropolitan Detroit, then it’s time to get in a room and figure it out.”

Gilbert’s letter concludes with recommendations on how Detroit can shed its false reputation for reality. One way, he wrote, is to bring people to the city and let them experience its rebirth first-hand.

“Once we get them here, we’ve got them,” he said.