Many Jewish leaders among 150 expats rallying around Detroit.
The brassy sounds of a horn section blared along with the boom, boom, boom of the drums as members of Detroit’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School marching band strutted into a crowded room to welcome 150 of the city’s expatriates.
The successful business, civic and philanthropic leaders from across the country and the globe came together Sept. 17-19 for an invitation-only gathering billed as “Detroit Homecoming.” The marching band helped kick off the three-day conference organized by Crain’s Detroit Business meant to bring former Detroiters back to their roots to reconnect and even invest in the city’s future.
“It’s just great to see so many Detroit expats come to town,” said Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Inc. and one of the major event sponsors, along with the William Davidson Foundation, A. Alfred Taubman and others.
“There are so many successful people all around the country and world from Detroit. It’s our job to convince them to move back here, and if that doesn’t work, at least get them to invest here.”
The opening reception was held in the lobby of the 19-story David Whitney Building on Woodward Avenue, currently under renovation. Just outside, construction of the M-1 Rail project is also under way. Josh Scott, 38, of Colorado, an expat from Huntington Woods, felt the energy right away. He’s the founder of craftsy.com, an online hub for quilters, woodworkers and other craft-makers of all kinds.
“Things are happening; that’s the part that’s exciting,” he said. “It feels like there’s a groundswell of momentum building in a really exciting way.”
Before the conference was over, Scott pledged $100,000 and proposed raising $5 million from Detroit expats and finding a local bank or foundation to match the sum. He said he views the city as a giant do-it-yourself project in the making.
“It’s a blank canvas,” Scott said. “There’s opportunity for creativity, for inexpensive real estate and to build up something in a way you don’t have in a more-established market. I think it’s going to take young people coming back to the city, job opportunities and fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem to bring Detroit back.”
An impressive list of expats, many of them Jewish, took part in a whirlwind 48 hours of discussions and events. Gilbert moderated a conversation with billionaire investor Warren Buffet titled “Why I’m Bullish on Detroit.” Bloomberg President and CEO Dan Doctoroff spoke about what makes a successful city. Other participants included Eli Broad, philanthropist and founder of two Fortune 500 companies; Daniel Levin, a prominent Chicago-based real estate developer; Bob Shaye and Gary Gilbert, Los Angeles filmmakers; and many others.
Local supporters included Gov. Rick Snyder, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, Roger Penske, Chris Ilitch and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.
“I think this is a wonderful moment for Detroit, but it’s a moment that also requires a lot of persistence, patience, creative thinking and good governance over a very long period of time,” Doctoroff said. “Recoveries in cities like Detroit that have had such trouble for so long don’t happen overnight.”
The businessman and civil servant was once deputy mayor for economic development in New York City. He grew up in Birmingham and is a graduate of Seaholm High School, Harvard University and the University of Chicago Law School. He’s been an expat for nearly four decades.
“This event is a real demonstration that you never really let Michigan or Detroit out of your heart,” Doctoroff continued. “The ties we all have, which for each of us are different, are all very strong. People want to help in any way they can.”
Some participants traveled a long way because of those strong ties. Bernie Sucher, an entrepreneur and investor who was born in Detroit, came all the way from Moscow.
“It’s pretty remarkable to see what’s happened in a short period of time,” he said. “But there’s more work to do.”
Brian Tauber, president and CEO of CPP Global, a plastic injection molding company in North Carolina, points out Detroit is still in the midst of bankruptcy and faces other formidable challenges. He served as a former assistant to Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer for economic development in the 1990s before he moved away.
“I think the bankruptcy was an important thing for the city,” Tauber said. “I think it was a realization and acceptance of the status of the city, and it has to go through that in order to begin a rebirth.”
Tauber, like the rest of the expats, believes Detroit will someday make a triumphant comeback. He says the seeds of revitalization have already been planted.
“The fact that there are people moving into the city is an encouraging step,” he said. “You can have your baseball, you can have your football and you can have your casinos — but, until you develop a residential core, a tax base, you’re really just a destination and you’re not going to grow.”
Work has begun on the Ilitch family’s $450 million Detroit Red Wings arena project, which spans 45 blocks between Detroit’s Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods. It includes restaurants, bars, retail space and housing. Construction is expected to be complete in 2017, and countless other projects are also under way.
Scott Raskin, CEO of Mindjet, an innovation software company headquartered in San Francisco, said, “It was a real eye-opening experience to see the commitment and progress that has been made.
“Ever since the event, I have found myself talking up Detroit because the perception continues to be so negative. I’ve also begun asking how my own business can leverage the opportunities in Detroit and how I can join other ex-Detroiters in the rejuvenation of the city,” Raskin said.
Raskin, son of JN columnist Danny Raskin, says he has hired a Detroit team and now is looking for space here for a satellite office.
Jamie Hodari also is watching with interest. The Bloomfield Hills native attended Cranbrook, Columbia, Yale Law School and Harvard. He’s worked with a hedge fund and as a corporate lawyer, but also as a journalist in India and in education in East Africa.
He currently lives in New York and runs the company Industrious, which creates social office complexes for startups and growing businesses. He plans someday to open a location in Detroit.
“We’re all betting on the same sets of trends and drivers among young people right now,” he said. “There’s real momentum. The Downtown acceleration is real. It would mean a lot to us to bet on Detroit. It’s every bit as promising and attractive a market as other major cities.”
For more about Detroit Homecoming, go to www.detroithomecoming.com.
By Robin Schwartz, Contributing Writer