Expats Come Home: Annual Event Attracts Notable Detroiters Back To The City
What do you call it when hundreds of notable former Detroiters return home for two days of networking focused on the future of the city? Detroit Homecoming, of course.
The Detroit Homecoming launched two years ago with an inaugural conference to reconnect influential Detroit expatriates, or “expats,” with their hometown community. It featured around 100 expats, including global philanthropist Eli Broad.
Highlights of that first event included an address by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and a fireside chat between Dan Gilbert and famed investor Warren Buffet discussing why Warren is bullish on Detroit’s comeback.
That inaugural Homecoming was followed by a fall conference in 2015 and the most recent Homecoming, held Sept. 14-16.
These events over the years have brought more than 450 expatriates — executives, entrepreneurs and other leaders — back to their hometown to explore ways to invest, support and donate to the city of Detroit.
Since 2014, more than 450 expatriates have returned “home,” and over $240 million in pending economic development has resulted. Notable expat successes include Will Adler, opening a new destination retail store in Midtown Detroit, and a prominent Chicago investor raising $180 million to fund real estate development efforts in Detroit neighborhoods.
Each year the attendee list has grown significantly. In 2016, nearly 200 RSVP’d to attend or get more involved in their hometown’s rebirth. The 2016 opening dinner included former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in a nearly hour-long conversation with Detroit business leader Dan Gilbert. Ballmer discussed his commitment to fighting intergenerational poverty and his interest in committing philanthropic resources into his native city.
Ballmer also confirmed that his first job was as a caddy at Franklin Hills Country Club, where he used to drive the late Alfred Taubman around on the golf course.
At the opening dinner, Shinola President Tom Kartosis unveiled plans for a new Shinola Hotel to open in 2018. The event included a “State of the City” address by Duggan, remarks by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and customized tours for expats to see places of interest relevant to them.
Another highlight this year centered around Jeffrey Seller, the Oak Park native and producer of the hit Broadway show Hamilton. Seller returned to the Detroit Homecoming to receive the “Guvvy Award” from Gov. Snyder. This award is given to individuals from Michigan who have received unique distinction in the arts. Prior awardees include comedian Lily Tomlin and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer shared video remarks to Seller after his fireside chat with national political journalist Ron Fournier, held at Orchestra Hall.
During this conversation, Seller spoke about his early years growing up in Detroit and how he initially formed his passion for theater. It all started when his family took him to a play at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit and he realized, by fourth grade, what his lifelong passion would be.
His company, Adventureland, is named after one of the first plays he saw in elementary school. Adventureland is the production company of Hamilton, which expands from New York City to Chicago this month, and is set to become a billion-dollar production. Seller formed a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to ensure tens of thousands of American students could see the production at the deeply discounted rate of $10.
Notables In Attendance
Among the nearly 200 expats who RSVPd, several dozen were from the Jewish Detroit community, such as noted journalist and author Daniel Okrent, real estate investor Ethan Linkner, famous choreographer and songwriter Allee Willis, technology executive Andrew Moers, philanthropic consultant Terry Axelrod, Laurie Rubenstein, chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and Imerman Angels founder Jonny Imerman.
A handful of expatriates have attended all three years of events and have gone on to contribute to their hometown’s revitalization. After coming to the first two events, Axelrod organized regional dinners for influential expats to get together outside of the annual event.
To further recognize Seller, the Jewish community organized a reception in his honor that brought together 40 Jewish expats and 40 local leaders involved with business and philanthropy in Detroit. This event was sponsored by the William Davidson Foundation, and introductory remarks were offered by Ethan Davidson, trustee of the Davidson Foundation. DPop, an award-winning design firm, hosted the reception in its Downtown Detroit headquarters.
Seller, introduced by close friend and Detroit-native Amy Nederlander, spoke about his Jewish identity. Seller began his involvement at Temple Israel and Camp Tamarack, which he spoke fondly of. He reflected on how those experiences led him to the theater program at the University of Michigan and subsequently a career on Broadway. Seller said he is proud of his Jewish roots and talked about his visit to Israel this summer and his plans to return there for his son’s bar mitzvah.
Additional honorees at the Jewish reception included Peter Cummings, Julie Fisher Cummings and Adam Levinson. Peter and Julie returned from many years in Florida and now reside Downtown. Peter Cummings is spearheading significant real estate development in Detroit and discussed one such project that will create more than 1,000 new residential units. Julie Fisher Cummings has championed children’s education and healthcare as the vice chair of the Max and Marjorie Fisher Foundation, which has prioritized philanthropic investment in the city of Detroit as well as within the Detroit Jewish community.
Adam Levinson traveled to the Detroit Homecoming III all the way from Singapore. He came to discuss his $10 million commitment to support Detroit education and his willingness to match any gifts from the expat community toward the Detroit Children’s Fund.
Dan Gilbert and former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin spoke about their hopes for the city’s future and why they are optimistic about the direction in which Detroit is heading. Levin, a longtime resident of the city, gave credit to the many business leaders who have invested in Detroit over the past few decades.
Each honoree received a scrapbook of their family’s mentions in the Detroit Jewish News from the Detroit Jewish News Foundation William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History.
Israel and Erik Nordin, the Detroit sculptors behind many unique sculptures in the city, created a custom menorah for the honored expats to take home. The chanukiah is a replica of the giant menorah they created for Detroit’s annual menorah lighting in Campus Martius, right in the heart of Downtown. The Nordin brothers also created smaller keychain replicas for all attendees.
Plans are already under way for the fourth Detroit Homecoming, to be held Sept. 13-15 next year.
By Adam Finkel | Contributing Writer
Photos by Brett Mountain