Editorial: Auto show highlights Motor City's revival

The Detroit News

It's hard to imagine a Detroit winter without the North American International Auto Show, and this week the annual iconic event begins with an air of positivity not felt by the auto industry or the Motor City in many years.

It's been a year of record-setting recalls, particularly for General Motors, one of Detroit's biggest employers. And the city itself spent most of 2014 in bankruptcy.

But visitors to Detroit for this year's show will find the resiliency of both the auto industry and its hometown on display.

The Detroit show just a few years ago was wobbling, with lagging attendance from both the general public and some manufacturers. Rival auto shows in Los Angeles and New York threatened Detroit's prominence, and there was talk of moving the event to Chicago.

In 2008, Nissan unveilied its new products in L.A. instead of Detroit, and along with Mitsubishi and others, didn't even bother to come to Cobo.

But this year, Cobo Center — newly renovated and more fabulous than ever — will host more than 800,000 visitors during the public days of the auto show, along with more than 5,000 news media analysts, industry executives and other representatives this week.

"There's no question this is the No. 1 show in the U.S.," says Tom Libby, an industry analyst at IHS Automotive in Southfield. "It's been a snowball effect. As it's gained strength, manufacturers realized they need to be here.

"It's great promotion for the city — and great for the industry."

The U.S. auto market grew by about one million from 2013 to 2014, when sales totaled 16.5 million, the highest number and first time crossing 16 million since 2006.

And although some manufacturing has moved south, and other parts of the auto production process are done elsewhere in the country, Detroit remains the hub of the North American auto industry and a leader globally.

Metro Detroit's concentration not just of auto manufacturers, but also of suppliers, technical experts, analysts and media dedicated to the topic remains unrivaled. And of course the city's rich history with the industry still binds residents in a unique way.

GM, despite facing one of the biggest crises in its company history, maintained market share in North America, losing just one-tenth of a percent. U.S. sales for FCA US, formerly known as Chrysler, increased 16 percent, and Ford Motor Co. maintained its outstanding performance.

While loyalty to these domestic companies might influence a small part of those sales, it's no doubt the quality of their products that explains the success.

This year's show gives the city of Detroit an opportunity to show the world it's turned the corner on its past as well. There's a rekindled vibrancy in downtown, with first-class restaurants, new bars, small businesses and fresh residents.

Crime is down, and for the first time in a long time, the City Council and mayor's offices are cooperating, and transparent.

This doesn't mean the mission for either the auto industry or Detroit is accomplished.

Safety improvements must be at the forefront for the industry in 2015, and contract negotiations with the UAW this year will shape the future for both workers and the companies.

Leaders in Detroit must also continue to work together to correctly execute the terms on which it exited bankruptcy.

But Detroit is nothing if not resilient, and it's a hopeful sign the city and its hometown industry are improving together this year.