Detroit and its auto industry are starting to roll again

Posted on October 12, 2011

For years, this blue-collar city has been synonymous with the ills suffered by the decline of great American cities — crime, poverty and abandonment.

These days, people think about Detroit a little differently.

A new spirit is heard in the euphoria for its professional sports teams: The Tigers are in the American League Championship Series, while the Lions are 4-0 for the first time since 1980 — and playing on Monday Night Football for the first time in a decade.

That spirit is celebrated in an Emmy-winning Super Bowlad that touts the city’s working-class roots. It’s felt in the resurgence of the auto industry, which has seen sales rebound with new products and improved technology three years after almost collapsing.

“There’s a tendency to think about Detroit as this Rust Belt, throwaway city,” says Susan Mosey, president of Midtown Detroit Inc., whose group is offering financial incentives for people to move into the city. “All this has reframed that conversation. … There is a moment in time for Detroit.”

Who ever thought the words “imported from Detroit” — tagline of the Super Bowl ad — would be cool?

People here say it’s not just Detroit’s image that’s changing. They say after years of decline, the city finally is taking baby steps forward.

Several major companies, including Quicken Loans, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michiganand DTE Energy, have moved operations downtown. More artists and young people are moving to the city’s center.

In July, Detroit showed the largest one-year increase in home values of 20 major cities: a 1% uptick, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller index of property values. That comes after being down 46% from the city’s peak in 2005.

“The car companies have stabilized. … The sports teams are on the rise. We have a long way to go, but there are so many positive signs,” says Grammy-nominated recording artist Kem, a native Detroiter.

Even Hollywood is taking notice. Four movies featuring metro Detroit locations are in the cineplex or opening soon. Among them: Real Steel, starring Hugh Jackman, and The Ides of March, starring George Clooney.

City leaders say the improvements do not hide the hard realities. Detroit lost 25% of its population during the past decade, the largest drop of any U.S. city with more than 100,000 people.

The city that in 1950 had a population of 2 million has about 702,000 residents, 38% of whom live in poverty. The region’s unemployment rate is 14.4%, among the nation’s highest.

The city is just coming out from under a scandal involving its former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, whose antics were material for late night comedians. Kilpatrick went to jail for lying in court about an affair with his chief of staff and also faces federal corruption charges. Several of his cronies are going to prison for bribery and other offenses.

The city was so distracted by the scandals that efforts to move forward got little traction, says City Council President Charles Pugh.

Now, he says, the sports teams’ wins and other successes are helping Detroiters feel proud of their town again.

“It’s a welcome reprieve from the reality of life in a big city,” he says. “It’s a reprieve from how do you solve the next problem.”

The city’s mayor, former Pistons basketball star Dave Bing, says the sports high is helping the city as more people crowd downtown restaurants, bars and hotels.

But, he says, “I don’t want to get too giddy just yet. We are still treading water.”

He says the city struggles to provide law enforcement, garbage pickup and lighting, to all corners of its 140-square-mile area.

‘It’s a “we” situation’

The city’s troubles are hardly on the minds of local sports fans, who haven’t seen this much winning in early October in years.

The Tigers eliminated the New York Yankees on Thursday in the AL Division Series, though they lost their opener in a best-of-seven series Saturday against the Texas Rangers.

The team’s fate has been tied to its ace pitcher, Justin Verlander, 28, a right-hander who led the league with 24 wins, a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts.

Verlander says he’s well aware of how the recent success of the Tigers, Lions and the NHL’s Red Wings impacts the city’s collective psyche — especially since all three teams play their home games in the heart of downtown. The Red Wings, which look to make the playoffs for the 21st consecutive season, started their 2011-12 season Friday.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Verlander says. “The more you win, the more fans come. Bringing people to downtown Detroit helps the economy tremendously.”

Ken Lucas, Dearborn High School football and wrestling coach and a lifelong resident of suburban Dearborn, home to Ford’s headquarters, says the wins are a morale boost.

“Everybody’s hurtin’ around here except the big honchos, and it gives you a little light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “You save a little bit, miss vacation to go to a Tigers game, go to a Lions game and take your son down there.”

Gary Bailey says the Tigers’ success embodies the spirit of a town that works hard.

“You see the excitement of the people,” says Bailey, an insurance agent. “This is a tough town. It’s a gritty town. I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’m still working. I’m not going to retire.”

Even though they live in suburban Detroit, he and his wife of 50 years, Beverly, stayed downtown at the Marriott Renaissance Center for two of the games against the Yankees. They soaked up the scene at local bars, such as Cheli’s Chili Bar, a popular spot owned by former Red Wings player Chris Chelios.

The excitement for the Tigers and Lions spills out to strangers who high-five each other on the street and cheer when they spot each other’s team jerseys.

“Any real Detroiter views the team as their own,” says Chuck Johnson, sports media director for Detroit public schools. “It’s a ‘we’ situation. Right now, the teams are winning, so we are winning. Detroiters have always been resilient. That’s what we see in these teams.”

The Lions are one of only two NFL teams, along with the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, with perfect records. They haven’t lost a game since December 2010, when they played the Chicago Bears, the team they’ll meet again here Monday night. Not bad for a team that in 2008 became the only one in NFL history to finish 0-16.

The Lions will play Green Bay in the traditional Thanksgiving Day game, which for the first time in years will mean something.

“It not only makes you feel good, it allows us to improve the city’s image, one panning shot of Detroit on TV at a time,” Pugh says.

‘This is what we do’

“Detroit” has always been interchangeable with the American auto industry. Five years ago, Detroit’s General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were headed for perdition. They were stagnating, could not compete with foreign automakers and cut 120,000 jobs. GM and Chrysler borrowed money from the government to stay afloat. Ford mortgaged the company.

Today, all three are making money, with strong sales in pickups and SUVs in September, and they are going on the offensive with new products.

“The image change for Detroit in the last three years probably has been more than any of us in the industry anticipated,” says Jesse Toprak, vice president for industry trends and analysis at, a car pricing and research company.

Not long ago, the auto-buying cognoscenti disdained Detroit and favored foreign brands. That attitude is uninformed, Toprak says. Detroit cars, overall, are “head to head with imports,” he says.

“The real quality gaps between domestics and imports have almost vanished,” he says, and considering “how much car you get for your money,” Detroit vehicles tend to be better values than foreign-brand rivals.

Chrysler’s remake of its 300 sedan got high marks from Consumer Reports in the November issue. CR says the new 300 “ranks among the better upscale sedans,” a category that includes Lexus, Acura and Hyundai luxury models.

Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” ad campaign has generated a lot of buzz for Detroit cars — and the city. The ad featured Detroit native and rapper Eminem driving past factories, abandoned buildings and city landmarks.

“What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?” an anouncer asks. “This isn’t New York City. Or the Windy City. Or Sin City. And we’re certainly no one’s Emerald City.”

“This is the Motor City. And this is what we do,” Eminem closes.

“That commercial stood for the new Detroit,” says Mike Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. “There was no denial of what Detroit is. It says we’ve been knocked down, but we’re not knocked out. … The commercial brought that conversation to the country.”

Most of the lost auto jobs are gone for good, but a few thousand are returning, and more are being preserved as the United Auto Workers and the car companies finalize new four-year contracts. A study by the Center for Automotive Research, an organization supported by foundations and car companies, shows that in Michigan there are 22% more auto-related jobs than there were when Detroit automakers hit bottom in 2009.

And Detroit is becoming an environmental leader.

GM’s Chevrolet Cruze Eco is the highest-mileage gasoline car available, matching highway mileage ratings for small diesel cars. Ford converted a factory in nearby Wayne, Mich., that once made big SUVs to make Focus compacts and, soon, some hybrids and electric vehicles. Chrysler will build in the USA high-gas-mileage, four-cylinder engines for a line of cars developed by its majority owner, Fiat.

‘There’s an awesome energy here’

These successes help keep young people in the city. Stevie Ansara, 24, is a beatbox artist, a vocal percussionist, who teaches art in Detroit public schools. He is part of a crop of artists and young people celebrating the city’s grit.

“There’s an awesome energy here,” he says. “The city is your canvas.”

His Midtown neighborhood is seeing more investment as development groups such as Mosey’s entice prospective residents. Funded by local foundations, Mosey’s group provides up to $20,000 in forgivable loans for down payments or up to two years’ rent as incentives for people to move into the area.

So far, 250 people who work for the three major employers in Midtown have signed up. The group just launched a similar program downtown.

David Sampson, who runs the Mariners Inn homeless shelter and substance-abuse treatment center near the stadiums, said he wants to see the momentum spill over to help downtrodden neighborhoods and people in need.

For now, he says the winning sports teams are a boon to some of his clients, about 16% of whom work as vendors in the stadiums.

Sampson uses the city’s revamped image, exemplified by the Chrysler ad, to show his clients that they, too, can succeed.

The ad, he says, told the world: “This is who we are. This is what Detroit is, so stop degrading us. We are on a comeback.”

By Marison Bello and Steve Gardner, USA Today