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Cleveland — Dan Gilbert wants to see a greater involvement by Detroit’s Big Three automakers in the revitalization of the city’s downtown, starting with the only one still headquartered there: General Motors Co.

“I took GM’s annual marketing budget and divided it by 365 days,” he says. “If GM wanted to build a new, state-of-the-art, technology-driven, incredibly attractive, digitally based place that would blow away everyone in attracting young people, it would cost them let’s say $1 billion.

“That would cost them $25 million a year (in depreciation). That’s the equivalent of four days of their marketing budget. For a brand new, unreal place that would be like a rebirth. It would attract young people, and bring energy to their company.”

GM is rehabilitating its Renaissance Center space to make it more collaborative and technology-friendly.

Gilbert sees Detroit’s future in technology, not manufacturing, and that includes the auto industry.

“The car business is technology on wheels,” he says. “The good news if you’re in the city-building business is that it’s a great time to be alive. Because attracting digital companies is less expensive and faster.”

But he fears Detroit is falling behind in the competition for automotive technology companies, and blames a lack of a unified strategy.

“Carmakers don’t understand you can’t invest in a digital company in Van Buren Township and in Troy and here and there,” he says. “You have to create the overall environment to attract them.

“Imagine there were two blocks of Woodward that were car tech lofts. People would be brainstorming all day. They’d be working together. They’d have trade groups. They’d have the same mission. People who are interested in that space, when they flew in, they’d be blown away.”

His big idea is moving the automotive technology piece of the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas to Detroit, where he says it should be attached to the North American International Auto Show. The auto show has announced the it in 2017 will have a large area dedicated to the future of mobility. Gilbert wants them to go Gilbert, and year-round.

“We should have another entire hall featuring car tech,” he says. “And for the next 50 years we are going to the car tech capital — trade shows, conferences.”

If Detroit loses the mobility race to Silicon Valley or elsewhere, Gilbert says, “it won’t be because they’re so great. It’ll be because we were sleeping again.”

Nolan Finley

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