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Making downtown safer — with T-shirts and whistles

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Businesses hate uncertainty, customers hate risk, and everybody hates having a car window bashed in.

From those guiding principles springs the Guardians of Good Will, a stalwart group that might someday have even more impact than a brick against glass — if it actually comes into existence.

While skaters enjoy Campus Martius, the Guardians of Good Will would be keeping cars safe and making visitors feel welcome.

So far, it's just an idea, modeled in soft clay rather than chiseled in stone. But the guy saying "What if?" isn't just a dreamer or a do-gooder, though he's probably also a bit of both.

Along with his 92-year-old dad, Bill Kunz owns an auto components supplier called Global Enterprises with two factories and more than 300 employees. He has practice at being practical.

In July, he and his wife, Charmaine, went to see "The Book of Mormon" at the Detroit Opera House. The Tigers were at home that night, and the parking lot the Kunzes chose near the ballpark was bustling.

By the time the West Bloomfield couple made it back to their Chrysler minivan, the game was over, the attendant was gone — and so was their satellite radio, ripped from the dashboard so some jerk could sell it for maybe $20.

That was the inspiration for the Guardians of Good Will, who sound like a team of touchy-feely superheroes but would actually just be a bunch of well-intentioned part-time employees in matching T-shirts.

Between the window and the radio, says Kunz, 53, he lost maybe $250. Plus, the van was in the shop for three days, "and there's glass in there forever."

More important was the potential for a shattered sense of security.

A broken window inspired Bill Kunz’s idea.

Putting people to work

The Kunzes still come downtown, he says; there are more reasons to be there than to be scared away.

But for a lot of people, one incident is still all it takes to prompt a retreat beyond 8 Mile Road.

"We have to realize," Kunz says, that "one of the perceptions is you're kind of walking into Gotham here."

His solution is low-tech, low-maintenance and low-cost, at least compared to a new window or a ballpark beer.

Hire a bunch of people for $9 an hour, money that you know will be spent locally because that's the demographic where money truly trickles down. Give them T-shirts, visible IDs and loud whistles and turn them loose on nights when downtown and Corktown are hopping.

They would be ambassadors and observers, he says, not hired muscle: walk the streets, see trouble, blow whistle, wait for police or actual security.

The object would be to make thieves feel uneasy and customers feel welcome.

"You've got the titans down there, people like Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch, wanting to bring people to restaurants and ballgames," he says.

With smash-and-grabs the most prevalent type of crime, if you don't count the $45 the city is charging for parking tickets these days, "the benefit could be huge — and the cost is minimal."

Getting 'eyes on the streets'

Detroit Police Chief James Craig was scheduled to be the guest of honor Monday night at a periodic meeting of Corktown residents and business owners. The principal topic, as always, was to be safety.

"That's first and foremost in our business plan," says Dave Steinke, co-owner of the Michigan Avenue restaurants Ottava Via and Mercury Burger Bar.

He says he's spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pave parking lots and provide security, but "the best deterrents are lighting and eyes on the streets."

In broad strokes, Steinke likes Kunz's idea, and doesn't rule out helping pay for something similar as long as the billionaires write the biggest checks.

Kunz pictures visitors also kicking in; when you're buying $100 worth of Tigers tickets, would it be unreasonable to go online and add $10 for some nonprofit vigilance?

The progress downtown has been astonishing. The next step, Kunz says, is critical mass.

Bars and ball teams are good businesses. A few T-shirts and whistles to go with them would be good business.