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The route of downtown Detroit’s new QLine begins at the 2006 Super Bowl XL, with Roger Penske in the driver’s seat.

Detroit’s comeback has pushed steadily ahead during the 11 years since that first big play to revive downtown. Empty buildings have been filled. Blight has been erased. Entire new commercial and residential districts are emerging. Sizzling nightspots have made the once deserted city core again the region’s entertainment hub.

And it all started when Penske picked up his phone to answer a call for help.

“When I got the call from Bill Ford Jr. to ask if I would be chairman of the Super Bowl committee, I didn’t realize it was going to open up a new chapter of my life from the standpoint of understanding the city of Detroit and helping build it back to a great city,” Penske said during an interview on Belle Isle, where he is preparing for the upcoming Detroit Grand Prix.

“I was fortunate to get that call. I didn’t say, ‘I’ll call you back.’ I said ‘I’ll take it.’ For me, the outcome has been amazing and I’m just proud to be able to say I was part of it.”

A major part. The Super Bowl bid came during the days of Detroit’s decline. As Penske said of the city then, “It was a broken business.” Convincing the National Football League to bring its premier event to a largely empty downtown was never going to be easy.

“We took Roger down to Atlanta for an NFL owners meeting,” said former Mayor Dennis Archer Sr. “When we walked in the room, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys jumped out of his chair and said, ‘Roger, what are you doing here?’ I knew then we had it.”

Penske, 80, whose empire runs from auto racing to auto dealerships, could have savored the Super Bowl success and slipped back to running his businesses. But instead it left with him the taste of the possible.

“I remember (former NFL Commissioner) Paul Tagliabue told me the NFL wanted to bring the Super Bowl to cities where it could make a difference,” Penske said. “When I saw the outcome of the Super Bowl and what it did for the city in the following years, I knew he was right. We became a different city.

“The organizations and individuals that were spawned from the Super Bowl — many of the same ones worked on getting the QLine. All of these things we see downtown are a byproduct of the Super Bowl. There’s no question it was the turning point.”

After the big game, Penske turned his focus to improving the physical appearance of downtown, helping start Clean Detroit and then the Downtown Detroit partnership. He was also deeply involved in the Riverfront Conservancy, which transformed the waterfront with the privately funded RiverWalk.

The Penske model is to bring private investors together to do many of the things that government does in most other cities.

“People don’t say ‘No’ to him,” said Rip Rapson, CEO of the Kresge Foundation, at $50 million the largest donor to the $186 million QLine.

It was Rapson who planted the idea for a downtown streetcar system with Penske.

“He said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and we did,” Rapson said. “When Roger starts something, he finishes it.”

Setting an example

It took almost 10 years to complete, and the hurdles were plentiful. But Penske and crew kept knocking them down, including the largest one, the erosion of federal support.

Most mass transit projects are heavily taxpayer-funded. Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was skeptical private investors could carry such a heavy load in Detroit.

“Roger looked at him eyeball to eyeball and said, “We’re going to get this done,’ ” recalled Matt Cullen, CEO of the QLine. “He’s that kind of guy. He puts out a vision and rallies people around it and gets them to do things.”

That was certainly true when Penske, tired of reading about equipment shortages hampering law enforcement and emergency medical services in Detroit, went to his friends to solve the problem.

“I made seven phone calls to key people here when we needed 100 police cars and 23 EMS units,” Penske said. “Nobody said, ‘No’. Everybody said ‘Yes’ and ‘When?’ That to me shows what’s changed.”

The downtown executives who work with Penske say they are simply following his example.

“The thing that can’t be measured is how high he has set the bar for what CEO hands-on leadership should be in the city,” said Cindy Pasky of Strategic Staffing Solutions. “One of the things I tell people when they ask why I still believe despite the challenges is that when you have someone like Roger Penske who is willing to sit at the table and put in his time, you know you have an opportunity to drive change.”

The ‘secret sauce’

Today, Penske looks at Detroit today through eyes that saw it leading up to 2006, when the Super Bowl committee was erecting fake facades on abandoned buildings, opening temporary bars and restaurants in a downtown that had too few, and hiring shuttles to carry visitors in from suburban hotels.

“When you go from knocking buildings down and putting plywood in front of windows and painting buildings in order to make the city look decent for a Super Bowl crowd, and then to walk Woodward Avenue and see Nike and Under Armour and all these restaurants, it’s just complete transformation, and it’s real,” Penske said.

“On top of that, the investment we’re getting from outside people; people from New York and California and other parts of the world are investing in real estate in Detroit. And the fact that you can’t get office space and you can’t get apartments or lofts. Those are byproducts of this success.”

Penske credits the Ilitch family with its new Arena District and Dan Gilbert’s rehabilitation work and foundations such as Kresge for its many investments, and all the others who have caught Detroit fever.

“That to me is the secret sauce we have now,” he said. “We’ve got a galvanized group of leadership that is committed to our city.”

The next step

Looking ahead, Penske doubts that a visitor today who comes back in 10 years will recognize Detroit.

“You’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg right now,” he said. “Gilbert’s talking about building the tallest building in Michigan, and all of the stores. These old, very nice buildings where the cores are so strong are now being re-engineered for business purposes and also to live in. If we get people living downtown it’s going to change everything.”

Obviously he sees the challenges, and believes the formula of public/private partnerships will continue to work.

“The next decade we have to execute on regional transit,” he said of his fellow business leaders. “I think that’s key. There’s no question that we have a big job to do. I’m obviously interested to see that succeed.”

“We need a safe city, we need a clean city. And that’s going to take some time. There was a time when we had 80,000 homes and derelict buildings that needed to be attended to and I think we’re halfway through them now. That’s going to make a difference to property values and tax revenue.

“The other area is trying to figure out how to get these kids an education that is meaningful to them. I’m not sure I have the answer, but that’s something we all have to take into consideration now. Because if we don’t have schools for the city of Detroit, all these millennials who are moving into town and have kids, if they have no place to send them, they’ll move out.”

The opening of the QLine is the culmination of Penske’s late career passion, but he’s not done yet. This weekend, he’ll be working to make sure the Detroit Grand Prix delivers on its promise of bringing $50 million in economic activity to the city.

He won’t stop, he said, because Detroit isn’t where he wants it to be yet.

“Once I connect with something I want it to be the best.”

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