detroit recovery
Gilbert, left, and Chrysler's Sergio Marchionne announced the 'Chrysler House', the first time the company will have an office downtown. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Sandra Patterson's face lights up at the mention of Dan Gilbert. She works the car valet desk at Detroit's Greektown Casino Hotel, which the entrepreneur has just taken over. "It's like he's sprinkling rose petals all over my city," she says beaming. "He's really rooting for Detroit."

And how. A self-made billionaire Gilbert, 51, was born and raised in Detroit. His father owned Saskey's, a bar in the city, and his grandfather ran a car wash. In the 1990s Gilbert and partners including his brother Garry started a mortgage business that became Quicken Loans, now the US's largest online retail mortgage lender.

Three years ago as Detroit seemed on the edge of destruction he moved his headquarters downtown and began snapping up swathes of real estate. His Bedrock property management company owns 22 buildings with more than 3m square feet in the city. He's attracting big names back into the city. Gilbert convinced Chrysler to take office space downtown and renamed a building after the car firm; he recently toured the city with Microsoft's Steve Ballmer. He's effectively created a business campus in the heart of a city some had written off as dead. A death that had been a long time coming.

Detroit had a population of nearly 2 million in the 1950s, and now it's below 700,000. People and their money fled to the suburbs decades ago. The city is struggling with $14bn in long-term liabilities, falling tax revenues and declining services, 60% of its children live in poverty. It's a decline that has been a long-time in the making.

"People around 55 and down have no memory of what people call the good Detroit. You'd hear from your parents and grandparents how incredible Detroit was," says Gilbert. For his generation those golden years were just stories. "The 1967 race riots are my first memories," he says.

Gilbert's vision of Detroit's future is of a city filled with young people from local universities, the majority of whom now skip town on graduation. This summer he'll have 1,100 interns working downtown, and he's convinced many of his tenants to follow suit. The company gives employees who buy property in the city $20,000 on condition they live in the city for five years. Occupancy rates downtown are close to 100%.

"Detroit has the bones, the infrastructure, the people, to be a very special city. We have to do a lot of clean up then we have to start playing offense. The part that is difficult is here already. Look at these buildings. It's laid out well; there are parks. It's like a lot of great hardware with no software," he says.

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