Cobo renovations show progress before auto show

Posted on December 14, 2011

To the casual visitor to next month’s North American International Auto Show, visual evidence of the $300-million remake now under way at host facility Cobo Center may be in short supply.

That’s because most of the work so far has been of the back-of-the-house variety — extending loading docks, upgrading electrical and temperature control systems, and the like.

Larry Alexander, chairman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, said auto show visitors should notice the construction work “not at all.”

“We’ve done a very good job of separating the work that they’ve done from where the customer activities are,” Alexander said Tuesday. “It’s almost come back to haunt us because we’ve got customers who’ve walked in who say they can’t tell there’s any work going on.

But there is, of course, and on Tuesday, Cobo General Manager Thom Connors led a pack of news media representatives on an hour-long, hard-hat tour of the work.

“We’ve come a long way in a short period of time,” Connors said. “People who work here are passionate about making it better.”

One of the more visible changes: About 25,000 square feet of new space has been added on to Cobo’s Oakland Hall by building on an annex on the west side of Cobo. It will house the Pure Michigan exhibit and some auto suppliers during next month’s show.

Over the past year or so, many technical changes have made Cobo a more comfortable, efficient place. Several more loading dock bays have been added, making set-up and tear-down easier. Several escalators have been upgraded, and all will be eventually.

Meanwhile, upgrades allow for better temperature control on the show floor itself. A new trash compacting area permits recycling and cuts down on pests.

All together, about 150,000 square feet of new or reconfigured exhibit and meeting space will be added to Cobo’s 700,000 or so square feet of space over the next couple of years.

The work is the biggest upgrade in a generation for Cobo. The center opened in 1960 and was last renovated in a major way in 1989. Since then, Cobo has been plagued by problems, including roof leaks, while newer, larger centers around the nation have pushed Cobo farther down the list of premier facilities. The latest upgrades should help address all those issues.

The biggest changes are yet to come. In perhaps the most dramatic, a new waterfront atrium entrance will be built off Atwater, a project that will begin immediately after next month’s auto show closes. It will be ready for the January 2013 auto show.

That atrium will allow for a new ceremonial arrival point off Atwater, and dramatically open up the interior of Cobo to riverfront views.

In the second project, the adjacent Cobo Arena is being gutted and rebuilt as a two-level exhibition space and ballroom. Demolition crews were hard at work in the arena Tuesday ripping out tiers of seating. The rebuilt arena will be ready for the 2013 show, Connors said.

Normally, Ford uses Cobo Arena to unveil its vehicles. This year, Ford will use Joe Louis Arena, instead.

Patrick Stansfield, a project manager for the Troy-based exhibits firm PRG, met journalists on the tour and explained some of the intricacies of setting up the show. Huge arrays of lighting rigs hovered at various heights as workers prepared to hoist them into place.

“Unlit cars are not very interesting,” Stansfield said. “Unlit cars look like a parking lot. Lit cars pop out at you.”