A PR firestorm around Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert’s $5.5 billion Detroit project shows that money isn’t the biggest challenge he faces in revitalizing the city

No comments

Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has been transforming downtown Detroit for almost a decade. Since moving his mortgage company Quicken Loans to the neighborhood in 2010, he’s invested $3.5 billion (with $2.1 billion in development) through his real estate firm Bedrock.

With a roster of around 100 properties in or around the downtown area, it’s the most ambitious private project in Detroit, a city that recently survived bankruptcy and had developed a reputation around the world as a ghost town, a post-apocalyptic shell of a once great American city.

But even though Detroit’s downtown is now filled with bright new storefronts, renovated office buildings, and fast-moving construction sites, it’s still a city of around 670,000 people who have dealt with years of strife, corruption, neglect, and poverty. Many Detroiters are rightfully skeptical of change. And that came to a head last year, when a Bedrock ad sparked a major controversy in July.

If you don’t live in Detroit or aren’t aware of its history, the ad, which primarily features a crowd of young adults with the words, “See Detroit Like We Do,” may seem benign. But the lack of context that went into it is exactly why it became such a problem, and why it shows that community relations, not access to capital, is the biggest challenge in Gilbert’s massive undertaking.

detroit

In a city that is 80% black and largely working class, the poster seemed to communicate that Bedrock stood for a new Detroit for and by white people working for their companies, where a white downtown could thrive while minority neighborhoods would continue to languish. Local Detroit media ran with the story and it blew up on social media in the worst way possible.

Business Insider spoke with Gilbert in May, for an episode of our podcast “Success! How I Did It,” and he explained why he publicly apologized for and denounced the poster.

As he wrote in a Facebook post last year, “Although not intended to create the kind of feelings it did, the slogan/statement we used on these graphics was tone deaf, in poor taste and does not reflect a single value or philosophy that we stand for at Bedrock Development or in our entire Family of companies.”

Gilbert told us that Bedrock had developed a variety of ads featuring a diverse group of people around the city (he posted the full ad series on Facebook). A contractor they hired put up the first ad downtown and planned on finishing the rest on Monday. But Gilbert acknowledged that regardless of the images used, he found the slogan itself condescending and had not personally approved  it.

“Who cares how ‘we see Detroit’?!” he wrote on Facebook. “What is important is that Detroit comes together as a city that is open, diverse, inclusive and is being redeveloped in a way that offers opportunities for all of its people and the expected numerous new residents that will flock to our energized, growing, job-producing town where grit, hard-work and brains meld together to raise the standard of living of all of its people.”

But even after the poster was taken down and the slogan abandoned, Gilbert needs to convince remaining skeptics in the city that Bedrock and the rest of the Rock Ventures companies. He told us his companies employ 4,000 people in Detroit, and that they have been instrumental in blight removal (destroying abandoned or ruined properties) and the rejuvenation of homes outside of downtown. He also acknowledged that Rock Ventures could have a better line of communication with the neighborhoods outside of the downtown area, and that his Detroit project is indeed holistic.

“There’s no way businesses can be successful by having really bad neighborhoods and a successful downtown,” he told us. “It just doesn’t work that way.”