Dan Gilbert Detroit

Dan Gilbert has a vision for downtown Detroit that many would find hard to square with the long, painful decline commonly associated with this city: a vibrant urban core full of creative, innovative and talented young people.

Yet Quicken Loans, the mortgage lender Gilbert co-founded in 1985, has invested $1 billion over three years, bought some 2.6 million square feet of commercial space in the downtown area and moved 7,000 employees there in a bid to make that vision a reality.

The company is in talks with 80 to 100 retail outlets and restaurants to open downtown space, and Gilbert and other business leaders have fronted most of the money for a $140 million light rail line in the heart of the city. Quicken has also invested in an incubator for technology startups, which now number 17.

Gilbert, who grew up in a Detroit suburb, wants to brake the exodus of educated young people from the only state in the country that lost population between 2000 and 2010. Among those who set up home elsewhere in recent years are two founders of daily deal marketer Groupon Inc, University of Michigan graduates from the Detroit area whose startup took root in Chicago.

"Young people are fleeing the state and we need to give them a reason to be here," Gilbert, 51, said in a recent interview in the Madison Theatre, one of many buildings his firm has bought.

Part of his zeal comes from his own need to attract top talent to Quicken Loans, which runs a nationwide online lending business that Gilbert says makes it "a tech company that happens to sell mortgages." Having avoided the subprime mortgages that crippled many of its competitors in the housing crash, the company has grown rapidly in recent years.

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