Detroit Comes Alive–and Still Has A Way To Go

I spent last Thursday and Friday at TechWeek Detroit, which coincided with the first extended nice weather of the spring. It was a great event, bringing energy and vitality to a downtrodden city that is experiencing a rebirth. Detroit is on the way back, and in a big way. The scale of what is happening surprised me. Here are some impressions:

  • I stayed at the recently renovated Pontchartrain Hotel on the Detroit River, parked my car, and walked the city. You can’t really experience the life of a metropolis except on foot.
  • The hotel renovation was a success (with one exception): the lobby, restaurant, and rooms are modern and appealing; my room was large, well laid out and attractively furnished, with nice views in two directions of the river and Windsor, Ontario. The sound-proofing was a failure, though; a car waiting for one of the staff to get off shift, pounding hip-hop twelve stories below my room, disturbed my afternoon nap. This was a regular feature of my stay, pretty much around the clock.
  • The juxtaposition between what is good and new about Detroit, and what remains to be fixed, was a theme for the week.
  • From a passing car, downtown Detroit looks much the same as it has for years–rutted streets, empty storefronts, ruined buildings, with the fortress-like Renaissance Center looming overhead in rebuke. A disturbingly high number of scary-looking people stroll the streets. This is the Detroit the national media has covered.
  • At ground level, at a slower pace, signs of rebirth emerge. Walking past the old Federal Reserve Building, I’m suddenly in Campus Martius Park–and I’m in the middle of a big, thriving city. People spill out of the Quicken Loans Building, with its big glass front. The decision by Dan Gilbert to move the company downtown, seen as risky at the time, is now seen as visionary. Young tech workers, wearing headphones, dressed in “skinny casual” breeze by, walking in all directions. This generation doesn’t lift weights.
  • Each block has its own panhandler, each with a different approach. Aggressive; supplicating; faithful; silent; wheedling. These are the people who are being left behind by Detroit’s tech-enabled renaissance. Some of the passing young tech workers give the panhandlers money and some don’t. Nobody has a long-term solution for them.
  • The pace of development is so fast that fully leased, renovated offices stand beside gutted shells. They’ll probably be finished and rented next week. When Dan Gilbert speaks at TechWeek, he says that there is 95% occupancy in the 40-some buildings Rock Ventures has bought and refurbished. He also makes a point of talking about downtown security. He reads a report nightly, and there is much less crime than people think. Rock has its own security service, highly visible on Segways. He doesn’t say it, but the implication is that the decimated public safety department cannot be relied on. This is what it looks like when the private sector leads.
  • I arrive at the Hudson Cafe on Woodward, a breakfast place I found on-line. I have to pick my way over construction rubble, but it’s worth it. I instantly decide that it is a better breakfast place than anything in Cleveland, which the decor, food and coffee confirms.
  • I stop by The Madison Building 1555 Broadway Street, where I office when I’m in Detroit. It was the first building Rock Ventures bought and rehabbed–an old theater–and it is full of young tech companies from the Detroit Venture Partners portfolio. There is a good coffee shop on the ground floor, and a super rooftop party area.
  • Behind the Madison Building, on Woodward Avenue, is the office of Bizdom, the accelerator program that is part of the same family of Dan Gilbert companies. They’re full, too, in part from absorbing spillover companies from the Madison Building.
  • TechWeek is in the old Federal Reserve Building. There is a gutted area on the left where most of the action is, and an elegant marble lobby and elevator stack that is nicer than most offices I have worked in. Why did the Federal Reserve leave, anyway? How much did their new building–much further from downtown–cost taxpayers?
  • TechWeek is jam-packed–the exhibit space, the sessions, the corridors. Young tech workers mingle with a smaller group of older people who have weathered the storm and are smiling at Detroit’s rebirth. Others left, but they stuck it out.
  • Many of the young people I talk with or who are on the panels are Michigan returnees. They left after college to Chicago or New York or San Francisco. They were beckoned back by opportunity, by the desire to be part of something special, to be near family, and to raise their own families comfortably without having to be millionaires–though being tech entrepreneurs they all expect to be millionaires anyway.
  • There are some really good panels, but what everybody is waiting for is Dan Gilbert to speak. He begins at 2:30, some 1,500 people packed in to hear him. Dan has asked Greg Schwartz, founder and CEO of DVP portfolio company UpTo to join him on stage, but Greg doesn’t say much. “Nobody wants to hear me,” he tells me later, but Dan is subtly sharing the stage with a company he favors.
  • Dan talks about his vision for downtown Detroit. It’s staggering in scope, but I believe that it is going to happen. He says it will take some time to clear up the blight, but a lot has been done since the desolate night three years ago when I and some colleagues searched in vain among dark streets for an open restaurant at 7 pm.
  • The day ends with a reception on the rooftop of the Madison Building, a venue that holds a couple of hundred people. Congressman Gary Peters is a center of attention; a troupe of Venture for America summer fellows takes a picture with him. The sky is clear blue, with a few wisps of cottony clouds. It’s warm but with a breezy edge of cool. “San Diego weather,” somebody remarks. “Yeah, we have a hundred days a year of it,” somebody else says.

Something big is happening in Detroit. It’s not finished and it’s not perfect. There are bumps in the road–I suppose Rock Ventures will have to repave the city streets, too, given Detroit’s well-publicized fiscal problems. But it’s exciting and it is working.

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