DETROIT - Filling Downtown Detroit with people – his employees, recent graduates of Michigan universities and other residents and workers – is the first phase of Dan Gilbert’s overall plan that is well underway.
By the estimates of Gilbert, who is the founder and leader of Rock Ventures, Quicken Loans, and several other companies, about 10,000 workers fill offices around Campus Martius on Woodward Avenue just a few blocks from the city's riverfront.
|Gilbert: "We can lead this initially, but we want to make it much bigger than us and show that people can come here, work here, play here, be safe."|
Most of them work for his companies, specifically Quicken Loans, which moved thousands of workers from the suburbs to the city beginning in 2010. The residential mortgage company is currently doing $4 billion a month in residential mortgages, according to Gilbert.
Other people working downtown are employees of businesses that have leased space in buildings owned by Gilbert’s companies. Still others work elsewhere but live in the residential space that’s 98 percent occupied in the refurbished buildings. His companies currently have about 1,000 job vacancies – mostly in technology work – and those workers, when hired, will join the downtown workforce.
Soon, Gilbert says, residents of and workers in Detroit’s downtown will be able to ride light rail from the riverfront to the New Center area. He’s an investor in that project and gives it a "95 percent" chance of happening in the next two or three years.
What’s missing in the area currently is shopping, Gilbert admits, but he’s got a plan for that too: Downtown residents and workers will soon be strolling between retail stores that he is looking to bring to the first floors of numerous buildings he owns along the Woodward Corridor. Bringing shopping destinations to Detroit’s downtown is among his priorities for this year.
And they’ll be protected by the new security cameras his team monitors from an operations center set up in one of his buildings.
It’s all part of a strategy aimed at making Detroit’s downtown core a vibrant, profitable place to work, live and visit.
"We can lead this initially," Gilbert said. "But we want to make it much bigger than us and show that people can come here, work here, play here, be safe here and be very excited about it. That was the theory and we decided we’re going to do it. We’re going to go for it."
Gilbert outlined how he’s fulfilled his vision thus far during a May 8 meeting with five leaders from Michigan ethnic and minority newspapers. In attendance were: Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News, Arthur Horwitz, president of Renaissance Media which publishes the Jewish News, Tack Yong Kim, publisher and owner of MI Korean newspaper, Elias Gutierrez, president of Latino Press, and Bankole Thompson, senior editor of the Michigan Chronicle, and Hayg Oshagan, president of New Michigan Media, the network of ethnic and minority media in the state.
Gilbert was accompanied by Carolyn Artman, senior public relations manager, David Carroll, Quicken Loans vice president of miscellaneous stuff, and Bruce Schwartz, Quicken Loans Detroit relocation ambassador.
Oshagan explained to Gilbert the importance of engaging with the group: Its publications reach thousands of readers in the ethnic and minority community of southeast Michigan.
"Each of them is not only a publisher of their papers, but newspapers in ethnic and minority communities really are key institutions in those communities,' he said. "They get the word out and they maintain a sense of community by having people see each other in the papers."
In the nearly 90-minute meeting with the editors and publishers, Gilbert explained why his focus has been on Detroit's downtown. First, he is a native Detroiter, born in the city just like his father and grandfather. They both ran small businesses in the city, and Gilbert remembers spending time at them as a youth.
But a few years ago, he became aware of what he called a "disturbing trend."
"We were moving into this brain economy from a muscle economy and the wealth producing entrepreneurs, the technology people, the marketing people, the people who participate in the new economy where wealth is being created …were moving to other states," Gilbert said. "Clearly they didn’t view – and hopefully that’s changing now – the urban core of downtown Detroit as a viable option for them."
Then when 10-year leases at Quicken Loan offices in the suburbs were expiring, company officials decided to move the whole operation to the city. That’s when Gilbert decided that he would lead a revitalization strategy.
"We said, look. If we’re going to move our whole business downtown, if we’re fortunate enough to be in the city with several thousand people working for us, it’s not going to be us moving into a building and hoping other people follow," he said. "We want to move in here and really impact change and make it much, much broader than us."
|(L-R): Bankole Thompson, senior editor of the Michigan Chronicle, Tack Yong Kim, publisher and owner of MI Korean newspaper, Elias Gutierrez, president of Latino Press, Dan Gilbert, Osama Siblani, publisher of The Arab American News, Hayg Oshagan, president of New Michigan Media and Arthur Horwitz, president of Renaissance Media which publishes the Jewish News.|
Because he tracks where his employees live, Gilbert knows that Detroit is gaining between 20 and 30 residents each month from among his workforce. In addition, nearly 600 college interns will gain experience at his companies this summer.
"It really occurred to me that if there was anything we could do to get young people excited at universities and colleges, it was to get them down here. Detroit pretty much sells itself once they come down here," Gilbert says. "Our focus, of course, is downtown but we think the heartbeat of a city is downtown."
Detroit's critics may remain skeptical of the city's progress, but Gilbert is understanding of that attitude."We're fighting four or five decades of decline so there's a legacy of frustration that is inherent in the city for people's memory," he says. "There are not that many people probably who remember things going this way. I understand that it will take time to change that feeling but I'm very optimistic."
Gilbert also answered questions about whether the city's neighborhoods would benefit when he is using such a laser focus on downtown.
"I would think, over time, the opportunity and jobs that are created downtown would create opportunities for folks in the neighborhood," Gilbert says."I don’t think that’s the only thing that will help the neighborhoods, but lack of economic opportunity and education are the two big things causing the neighborhoods to be where they’re at."
Gilbert and his staff admit that concerns about safety and security sometimes keep people from heading downtown.
"That's always a question," Schwartz says. "So we've taken a big focused role on trying to make the city safer, especially down here where our people are. We've taken the lead with a command center, which is in the Chase Building, which is going to monitor the area. There are hidden cameras all over, you can literally zoom right in."
Such efforts, Gilbert hopes, will help the currently vacant retail space become more attractive to small business owners who could move in and help him complete the next phase of his plan.
"For us the big thing this year is retail. We have thousands of people we've put in these buildings. The buildings are almost full. There are more coming," he says. "I know a lot of the ethnic folks are involved in retail, and that's something we'd love having."
Editor's note: This feature article is being published in the five major ethnic publications as a joint effort by New Michigan Media (NMM). It was published in the Arabic section of TAAN last week.