A Shocking Sight In Downtown Detroit: People

Posted on July 10, 2012

The city of Detroit is on the brink of insolvency. So why is it that I’ve never been more optimistic about its future?

A year ago, I wrote a Forbes cover story, Detroit: City of Hope, which included a conversation with many of the city’s movers and shakers about the challenges of trying to reinvent the Motor City. The headlines since then certainly have been discouraging, at least on the government side. Mayor Dave Bing has been a disappointment and he and the do-nothing City Council can’t seem to agree on anything. Meanwhile, the city’s top lawyer is dithering in court to void an agreement with the state of Michigan for a financial oversight board. The political gamesmanship is probably just delaying the inevitable, which is either the governor’s appointment of a slash-and-burn emergency financial manager to run Detroit or a municipal bankruptcy filing, or both.

But all you have to do is visit Woodward Avenue, the spine of Detroit’s central business and cultural district, to see that something quite encouraging is happening. Woodward used to be Detroit’s Fifth Avenue or Broadway, a thriving retail and entertainment district anchored by the old Hudson’s Department store and the famous Fox Theatre. By the time I moved to Detroit in the late 1980s, all that was gone, and Woodward was a Ghost Town, just one more of those scary, abandoned places you didn’t go in the Motor City.

But not long ago, I found myself driving up Woodward on a Tuesday afternoon, and I was shocked — shocked — to see dozens of pedestrians strolling along the street. They were soaking up the sunshine at outdoor cafes, or taking a break from work at one of the downtown office buildings to stretch their legs or run errands. In any other city, this would be unremarkable. But in Detroit, it was an amazing sight. Seriously.

Friends who work downtown marvel at the number of people they see riding bikes or walking dogs in the neighborhood. They joke that joggers are running for exercise, not out of fear.

People are moving back to the city’s core. Yes, Detroit lost about 25 percent of its population in the past decade, but young professionals are moving in, lured, in part, by cash incentives offered by some of the city’s largest employers, who have added an estimated 10,000 jobs downtown in the past 18 months.

A year ago, five companies — Quicken Loans, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan, Compuware, DTE Energy and Strategic Staffing Solutions — pledged more than $4 million to help employees offset the cost of buying, renting or renovating a home in the downtown area. The program was modeled after a similar one a couple of miles to the north, in the area known as Midtown, home to big employers like Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Hospital. Both programs are part of an effort by these so-called “anchor institutions” to attract 15,000 talented young people downtown by 2015. So far, nearly 500 people have taken advantage of the two programs, with many more applications under way.

The problem now is there aren’t enough apartments for all the people who want to live downtown. But that’s attracting more developers who are remodeling old buildings and creating loft apartments as fast as they can.

Restaurants and nightclubs are multiplying, too. I was at a friend’s bar over the weekend and was delighted as he rattled off all the development activity going on in his neighborhood, where the only other business currently is a strip club.

As I listened to him talk about the new steakhouse opening soon on the corner, and the buildings being rehabbed down the block, I was struck by the fact that entrepreneurs and large employers, too, aren’t waiting for Detroit to solve its fiscal crisis. They sense that Detroit’s on the cusp of a rebound and they want to get in on the ground floor, while it’s still cheap. Even Twitter is opening an office downtown.

Sandy Baruah, president of the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, confirmed it. “The way business is looking at it, the political struggle in Detroit is not new. It’s been an issue for as long as anyone can remember,” he said. So the threat of a fiscal collapse isn’t deterring their investments.

“There is an article of faith going on here,” he said. “We know it’s not going to be pretty. But the fundamentals, the basic assets in Detroit, are strong enough that it’s worth it, especially when prices are so low. At the end of the day we know there will be a city. It will find a way.”

By Joann Mueller, Forbes