NAACP returns to a revamped Detroit
Detroit — It’s a convention four years in the making as Detroit prepares this week to host the NAACP’s 110th national gathering, with efforts to show off a much different city than a dozen years ago.
Organizers estimate the event will attract 10,000 attendees and bring in at least $11 million to southeastern Michigan during the five-day convention at Cobo Center that begins Saturday.
“We want them to enjoy themselves and have a good time and go back and tell their family, friends and other associations and groups they may be a part of,” said Larry Alexander, president of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Encourage them to see the changes and experience what Detroit has to offer. If they were not spending their money here, they’d be spending it in some other city, so it’s important that people recognize that we’re bringing in revenue and dollars that benefit our city, state and region.”
A lot has changed in Detroit since the city last hosted the event in 2007. That conference, which featured the burying of the N-word at a funeral, took place in a city that was spiraling toward bankruptcy. It was also in a downtown pre-Dan Gilbert and the redevelopment that his Bedrock firm has completed or started after he moved the Quicken Loans headquarters into the Compuware building in 2010.
Other development work has taken place in downtown Detroit since that time, including the construction and completion of Little Caesars Arena.
Recent years saw the installation of the QLine streetcar system and improvements along the riverfront. And an influx of boutique retail has given downtown a flair that didn’t exist in 2007.
In the last three years, about 108 new restaurants have opened in the 7.2-square-mile greater downtown area, according to Alexander.
“They’re all creative restaurants,” he said. “They’re farm to table, fresh foods with creative young chefs who are all focused on flavor.”
There’s also the addition of quality boutique hotels, including Foundation Hotel, Shinola Hotel and Element Hotel.
“That’s a great thing to have because people want to have a great hotel to lay their head down and rest,” he said. “And all of these properties that have been added to our pipeline are really providing quality service and that’s a good thing for our customers and for Detroit because it says Detroit can sustain quality products, can offer quality, and customers are willing to pay for that.”
Alexander said there are blocks of rooms available in each downtown hotel for the convention. There are also blocks of rooms at hotels in Dearborn.
“All the hotels will be used in some fashion in some fashion or some manner,” he said. “They’re going to be sleeping there or entertaining in their meeting rooms or restaurants. This is one of those groups that’s a large group and so it requires everybody to be a part of the commitment that we make when they come to town.”
This year’s convention — themed “When We Fight, We Win” — will bring members together with elected officials, organizers, faith leaders, entertainers and young leaders for workshops and discussions on topics including police brutality, racism, voter suppression and mental health in the black community.
“You get Detroit being the home of black political power, black businesses, black homeownership and still being a mecca for African Americans in which a lot of cities have lost that power, so coming to Detroit, it’s always just a heightened renewal in my opinion because you really get energized to go back into your communities and do more work,” said Kamilia Landrum, executive director of the NAACP’s Detroit branch.
According to NAACP officials, the Detroit branch is one of its strongest branches with more than 10,000 members.
Four years ago, the city received a proposal for this year’s convention and created a bid package, Alexander said. The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the NAACP Detroit chapter and a member of the visitors bureau sales team, presented the pitch.
Among the requirements for the convention were having enough hotel rooms in the area, creating a customized website, street pole banners and providing welcome greeters at the airport.
It was a competitive process, Alexander said.
“Everybody wants to host the NAACP convention, especially in a year like this with the presidential candidates that want to come into town to address the group,” he said. “It’s a very important time to host the NAACP, and it’s a very important convention.”
The convention is expected to draw some heavy hitters in politics, including Democratic presidential candidates U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar as well as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
For the last year, a Blue Ribbon Host Committee has been assisting the local NAACP branch. The committee includes Quicken Loans, Skillman Foundation, DTE Energy Co., Fifth Third Bank, Chemical Bank and Ford Motor Co.
The committee’s job is to coordinate the national events and local events, including activities on the waterfront, policy discussions, a CEO roundtable, presidential candidates forum, the NAACP ACT-SO (Academic, Cultural, Technical and Scientific Olympics) final competition and numerous panels and workshops on education and health issues.
There are more than 50 events scheduled for both registered convention attendees and the public, including a diversity career fair, college fair and historical scavenger hunt and a concert featuring R&B singer Tamia to celebrate the NAACP convention and the second anniversary of Beacon Park.
“We’re super excited to be able to have people see our city and see the activation that has happened around the city,” said Trina Scott, vice president for diversity and inclusion for Quicken Loans.
“Attendees are going to be pleasantly surprised and see the evolution that we’ve made as a city in the last 12 years. Just like the Rocket Mortgage Classic, we’re excited to show off our city in a light that I don’t think the media gives us a lot of credit for.”
About 500 volunteers are expected to work the numerous convention events. Last month, volunteers took part in a rally and training at the Focus: HOPE Conference Center.
It’s been long days for Landrum working as late as 3 a.m. to prepare for the convention. It’s the eighth time the city has hosted the convention, she said, but the first time she’s has been in charge.
Landrum was appointed executive director earlier this year after being a member of the organization for 14 years.
“To have the opportunity to actually plan it coming to the city,” she said. “Just to be in this new space of leadership and have something to be responsible for something that’s meant so much to me since I’ve been a member of NAACP, it makes you speechless.”
Alexander chairs the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, which oversees Cobo Center. When the group took over operational control of Cobo Center in 2009, it underwent renovations that included Wi-Fi, a new food service operator and a promenade opening up to the riverfront with the atrium.
“They’re coming in, and they’re seeing a completely different city than they experienced when they were here in 2007,” he said.
Officials noted that another draw to the Detroit area for conventions is the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The airport ranks third in the country for passenger satisfaction, according to a J.D. Power survey.
“Detroit is becoming a very attractive city that people across the country and actually the world are really interested in coming to visit to see the resurgence of this American city,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.
“Having 10,000 at probably one of the most prestigious NAACP conferences in the country in Detroit is a definite feather in our cap.”