If you go to an event entitled, “Detroit Pride,” you expect optimism, enthusiasm, perhaps some boasting. You don’t expect conflict and consternation.
Ah, but this is what you get when you put five different Detroit boosters in one room together. There is a reason Detroit is known for its “grit” as well as its defiance. And that is what made Thursday’s Adcraft Club panel discussion at One Woodward Place a fascinating study of what Detroit was, what it is today and how – generally – the collective powers that be are all moving forward together.
But that doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything.
First, the facts: The panelists at the luncheon were superstars all in their own right. They were: Matt Cullen, president and CEO, Rock Ventures; Stephen Roginson, founder, Batch Brewing Company; Phil Cooley, founder, Slows BBQ; Iain Lanivich, group creative director, interactive, Lowe Campbell Ewald and Carmen Garcia, program officer for the Wayne State University Office of Alumni Relations.
They all performed well during the wide-ranging discussion, which was conducted as an informal question-and-answer format. During the overall discussion, the panel hit on all of the big-picture stuff. Detroit has hit rock bottom – perhaps four or five years ago. That bankruptcy is good and not the city’s death knell. That people want to feel connected to Detroit. That the neighborhoods must be included and not dictated to as to what changes need to be made. That being hyper local is cooler than bringing in big boxes.
At one point, the panel was asked to select one word that described Detroit today. The responses included, “energetic,” “motivated,” “optimistic” and “undiscovered.”
Cullen selected “opportunity.” That’s an apt choice considering he is part of “Opportunity Detroit,” which is a brand not unlike “Pure Michigan,” he told the audience of about 50 Adcraft members. Through his work with Rock Ventures, Cullen is supervising much of the work being done in Detroit on behalf of Dan Gilbert and Quicken Loans. Plus, he is on the forefront of the M-1 Rail Project as well as the Detroit Riverfront revitalization.
Cullen also spoke about the “Blight Task Force,” something Gilbert alluded to during his own panel discussion at Techconomy. There, Gilbert talked about the 80,000 to 90,000 blighted buildings – houses in the neighborhoods and businesses throughout – are so far gone that they need to be removed completely. He spoke of his idea for a billboard outlining how many blighted buildings have been torn down during what he promised would be an all-out blitz.
Well, lest you think Gilbert forgot, let me tell you that plans are moving full speed ahead. The Blight Task Force is a reality. They are meeting weekly. They are talking to Washington. They are headed to New Orleans TODAY to see what was done there and how. And this stuff is going to start hitting the streets of Detroit – this removal of unfixable buildings of every kind – within the next few months. There is a three-year plan in the works that will remove what Cullen told Adcraft listeners the “cancer” of blight from Detroit. It will be swift. It will be dramatic. And it will get done.
“We need to get rid of that cancer to move the city forward,” Cullen said, earning spontaneous applause several times during his comments.
That is where things got interesting. Cooley, me thinks, is not one to shy away from a fight. And I’ll take $20 bucks on him in any scuffle. Because while he showed all due respect, he adamantly reminded the audience (and Cullen to some degree) that there are buildings in Detroit that are worth saving. That there are timbers, structures and the like that can be reused. That deconstruction and recycling helps create jobs more than demolition and throwing things into the landfill.
“Are we looking at these structures in the right light?” Cooley asked.
Cooley also brought up the strange decisions that are made in Detroit – like ticketing him for blight because there was paint peeling from the same building he’s trying to rehab. Or that Detroit police are focusing on permit issues while cars are being broken into, people are being mugged and automobiles are stolen from well-populated neighborhoods and restaurants regularly. Or that someone tore down the University Club – a venerable, beautiful and salvageable building – to put a McDonald’s in its place.
There is nothing easy about fixing Detroit. You have to give these entrepreneurs like Cooley and these businessmen like Cullen huge credit for having the willingness to forgo profit and comfort for doing what is both right for now and right for the future. You can hear Detroit’s future in Cullen’s words and you can feel that those timelines for improvement are real and achievable. It gives you this little feeling of hope in the pit of your stomach – perhaps in three to five years, Detroit really will have a blank slate and room in the neighborhoods for new growth of every kind – agriculture, housing, business development.
But the way these two men sat next to one another and calmly laid out their separate visions – all while offering each other kudos for what they are achieving in their own neighborhoods of Corktown for Cooley and downtown for Cullen – was interesting and passionate. Cullen’s note that Detroit in five years will look “profoundly different” felt just as true as Cooley’s irritation at the city’s red tape.
This is how you do lunch in Detroit – that bit of grit in my quinoa has never tasted so good.