Bankole: Dan Gilbert lays out 'inclusive' vision for Detroit

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

For those who say more needs to be done to include the many city residents who feel left behind by downtown Detroit’s renaissance, Dan Gilbert has a message.

He agrees.

“The city is one organism. If the neighborhoods don’t do well, downtown won’t do well,” the billionaire investor and founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures said in a recent interview. “The reverse could be true. It’s not true right now. They’ve both got to work together because they both feed off each other.”

Gilbert, who owns more than 100 buildings downtown and has been a driving force in the current revival of downtown, sat down for a 40-minute interview in his Detroit office that touched on inclusion, poverty and other challenges facing Detroit’s comeback. And though the interview preceded Tuesday’s re-election of Mike Duggan as mayor, the developer sounded every bit the public/economic policy guru.

“I think we are seeing significant improvement. It’s not all. More than a few neighborhoods for sure. We will continue to support them in any way we can.”

Gilbert said the creation of jobs should be the number-one goal for Detroit, which is the poorest big city in the United States with a 35.7 poverty rate. Median household income in the city was $28,099 in 2016, according to the latest U.S. Census American Community Survey.

“Fundamentally, the response to poverty must go back to growing opportunities to access sustainable jobs,” Gilbert said. “Providing access to training, building businesses that generate job growth, such as Rock Connections where we have built a call center with 1,110-plus employees and creating entry points to the job market, are all key to solving some of the city’s systemic problems.”

He cited the Randolph Career and Technical Center, which provides skills training to young people, and said it should be replicated across the city. Bedrock, the real estate arm of Gilbert’s businesses, dedicated $250,000 as part of a $10 million renovation of the school that includes building improvements, painting and carpeting. The company said it is also identifying students who can intern and eventually become full-time employees.

“Here’s the deal: We are already significantly short of skilled labor for construction, including carpenters, plumbers, masons and others, and there is about to be $4-$5 billion worth of construction in the ground in the next 12-18 months,” Gilbert said. His Bedrock development arm has bundled four current projects in an attempt to win a new state tax incentive.

“Detroit’s growth is only sustainable if Detroiters have access to opportunities which can open up career pathways. Randolph is one good example of a public/private partnership focused on expanding an existing Detroit public schools program to provide training opportunities for high school students as well as adults.”

He said he and his team are focused on job creation, building entry points for access to those jobs and creating construction and post-construction job opportunities, which also includes small business creation.

“The more partnerships we can build to get this important work done, the better. Training is key to ensuring a successful future for Detroit, and this does not just apply to construction trades,” he said. “It is crucial that we invest in today’s youth to ensure that they have the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills required to access 21st-century jobs. That is why we have already invested in creating STEM opportunities for thousands of Detroit students and are now doubling down on that commitment to ensure that over 15,000 Detroit students receive STEM training in the next five years. ...

“We must also start showing students at a very young age what the possibilities are in Detroit.”

Gilbert described an effort by his organization to bring every sixth-grader downtown to tour the company offices and public spaces.

“We realized some of these kids have never had the opportunity to leave their neighborhoods and see downtown. Being able to see the opportunities Detroit offers outside of your own backdoor helps kick-start interest in internships, entrepreneurship, civic engagement and in being a part of something bigger in your own community.”

Gilbert said he understands the importance of racial diversity in the workplace and isn’t uneasy discussing it because 4,000 of the 17,000 employees in his various companies downtown are black. He cited the need “to see more African-Americans in senior level positions.”

“Detroit is special, everyone is welcome here and should have the opportunity to participate in the growth of the city,” he said. “Detroit is at a place in its history where we can set the table for inclusive growth that will benefit generations to come.”

Asked what corporate leaders can do to support an inclusive revitalization, Gilbert suggested more training in technological fields and continued efforts like the city’s bid to attract the second headquarters of Amazon.

“Over the last several months, I have seen more collaboration in the city than I have in decades. The Amazon bid was a wonderful mechanism to bring together local, national and city leaders in a way where everyone saw how important supporting Detroit is for the success of its future,” he said.

Gilbert, who was asked by Duggan to help prepare the Amazon bid, said: “I am excited about building on this momentum to continue engaging our community leaders in future investments in education, transportation and more. Technology and STEM training are key to meaningful investments, particularly in education, and will be core to our work.”

He noted that he is looking at various models around the country, such as Grand Circus in Detroit, “that are focused on specific technology trainings that qualify people for specific technology jobs in a relatively short period of time.”

After it’s all said and done, Detroit’s revitalization won’t be complete without an effective functioning school system. The current leadership has Gilbert’s confidence.

“It is very early in the new DPS leadership era, but all signs point to strength at the top with Superintendent (Nikolai) Vitti’s leadership at the helm, along with Alicia Meriweather and others. It appears that they are gaining momentum when it comes to the priorities that matter to finally turn DPS in the direction it has long needed to go in,” Gilbert said.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews