Underneath the story of Detroit is Bedrock

Bedrock CEO Jim Ketai chats about why he anchored his real-estate company in the Motor City's history and what it's doing to revitalize the urban center with art, architecture, and storytelling.

(Image via Bedrock's media relations page).
(Image via Bedrock's media relations page).

Why are people drawn to Detroit?
Probably because of the art scene, the culture, and the energy. It’s a place where people realize they can affect the outcome. Detroiters have a huge sense of pride in what’s going on here. People feel if they can be part of this renaissance and part of making difference, they will be proud in how they affect the outcome, too. They think of it as a city where they can be involved.

Typically, I talk about Detroit before I talk about what we’re selling. It’s become a natural thing to brag about Detroit, and talk about how far it’s come and has to go. We push people to come here and experience it. We feel we’ve accomplished our goal when someone visits Detroit and says, "You’ve blown me away."

How does content and PR factor into your business strategy?
They factor in heavily but not in a forceful way. We use things like our anthem video, which features completely unscripted dialogue from Big Sean. Nick Perold, our VP of marketing, asked Big Sean a bunch of questions about his relationship to Detroit. The answers were put right into the video, which was shot and edited before he got the questions.

At public speaking events, we show what we’ve done to the spaces and how people benefit from what’s happening here through pictures and such. We really push Detroit, because we’re creating this sense of place and activating a city. We just happen to be in the real-estate business.

Talk about growth. What is Bedrock doing in Detroit now?
We’ve made about 97 acquisitions. We’ve been careful to acquire properties that will be in the path of growth. For example, we could’ve leased up quickly and rented out spaces when they put in the Q Line Rail. But we waited until we knew the infrastructure was in. We’re careful to put the right tenant into the right place at the right time.

In regard to office space, we continue to buy these beautiful buildings but do everything we can to respect the history of the architecture. That’s hard to do and it’s expensive. We’ve gone to great lengths to create the office spaces of today, which are open and collaborative, while still maintaining the buildings’ integrity.

Then we add in place-making, which means creating public spaces around all these buildings. These environments can be used socially or professionally, and have outdoor seating, restaurants, so on.

Also, we’ve created opportunities for artists. For example, the Z Deck could’ve been any other boring garage. But we hired 27 muralists and assigned them each a floor to decorate. Now, it’s basically an art museum you get to drive through.

When Dan Gilbert brought you on to lead this company, was the goal always to revitalize the urban center of Detroit?
[Gilbert] and I grew up in the same neighborhood. I had been doing development in the suburbs for about 22 years prior to [Bedrock]. When I heard he was moving downtown, I proposed to him we buy some buildings there.

I gave up my suburban practice, and we formed this real-estate company together. He was the one with the bigger vision to say: I see this as a huge growth of urban revitalization. But neither of us thought it would be 97 buildings in less than six years. We made our first purchase in January 2011.

It’s incredibly rewarding. You get this huge adrenaline buzz. And you just can’t let your foot off that pedal. You got to keep moving forward, because there is no plan B.

Gentrification has become a loaded political and social topic. How do you treat Detroit’s historical spaces respectfully?
People have realized we are serious because of what we’ve done and all the properties we’ve acquired so far. We didn’t come in and rip them apart. We take buildings that have been neglected for 30 years and bring them back to life. When you clean and repair the facades, there’s this incredible metamorphosis. I think we’ve proven ourselves by our actions.

You seem to fuse the story of Bedrock with the story of Detroit. How do you do that authentically, and how do you speak for an entire city without seeming presumptuous?
The biggest key is how honest and from the heart you talk about it. I can’t listen to the naysayers that are searching for the negativity. We’re all about being positive. We frankly rely on team members and people coming to Detroit to tell the story themselves. They realize we’re not just making it up. This is what’s happening. You’ll always have people that think you’re not doing the best thing. But if they really step back and see what’s happening to the city, they appreciate we’re not just out for ourselves. We’re out for the city; we’re out for everybody. We do the best we can.

What type of work do you do with outside agencies?
Not much, to be honest. We have great PR, marketing, and creative teams, all in-house. We used to hire outside help in the beginning. We may partner with someone from media buying in the future. We might ask for agencies’ help on projects. There are three team members on our communications team and 15 team members on our marketing team.

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