Detroit's bouncing back

People are returning to the Motor City in droves as it reinvents itself as a hotchpotch of arts, culture, restaurants, newly thriving inner city, and affordable place to build a life and a career.

Urban center of Detroit is being transformed in line with the iconic city's architectural heritage.

Detroit filed for bankruptcy almost four years ago and at the time it seemed the city was in a pit of despair from which it would find it impossible to recover.

But the intervening years have actually been better for the Motor City than could have been anticipated in 2013 when it became the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in history.

Residential occupancy rates in the greater downtown area hit 98% last year and accommodation is increasingly hard to find, in stark contrast to the dangerous ghost town the city center used to be.

In January, PRWeek spoke to Jim Ketai, CEO of Bedrock, the real-estate company he formed with chairman and founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures Dan Gilbert. It has helped revitalize the urban center of Detroit through the purchase of 97 buildings in six years, all of which have been renovated in a spirit that respects their history and architectural heritage.

Furthermore, the Q Line streetcar service opened two weeks ago to increase affordable and convenient access to downtown. It is free to ride until July, starting at Congress Street and running 3.3 miles down Woodward through West Grand Boulevard.

The arts, culture, and food scenes are booming, with many high-profile media outlets picking up on the trend, including The New York Times a couple of weeks ago.

Anecdotally, many native Detroiters are returning home from more expensive cities such as New York and San Francisco, though it’s too early for that trend to show up in official population statistics.

After I wrote that first blog I was lucky enough to visit Detroit twice, in 2014 and 2015, for the North American International Auto Show, an event woven into the fabric of the city’s history as the center of U.S. auto manufacturing.

On Monday, I had the chance to visit Detroit again, this time for The Lagrant Foundation’s 19th scholarship and donor recognition reception, which was held at the General Motors Heritage Center in Sterling Heights.

The center is home to 400 classic GM cars, of which 200 are on display on rotation at any given time. It’s an auto junkie’s heaven with vintage Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Chevys bumper to bumper with concept and racecars and much much more.

The metaphor of the spirit of regeneration and renewal of an old industry with fresh blood represented by Kim Hunter’s inspirational organization, which handed out $150,000 in scholarships to 50 ethnic minority students in advertising, marketing, and PR, dovetailed nicely with what is happening in wider Detroit.

The global automotive sector has enjoyed seven years of relative prosperity, with sales hitting a record 88 million in 2016, up 4.8% on the prior 12 months and profit margins at a 10-year high.

But 2017 is set to be a softer year, and a perceived lack of innovation, poor return on invested capital, and slow progress toward self-driving and autonomous vehicles all contributed to Ford saying goodbye to CEO Mark Fields and long-time CCO Ray Day on Monday morning.

Ford’s share price plummeted 40% since Fields took over from Alan Mulally, who had navigated the iconic automaker through the recession that led others into bankruptcy and federal bailout, with Day at his side.

Day’s 28-year tenure at Ford included leading comms for three different CEOs and he ultimately paid the price many CCOs have similarly done in the past when the top executive departs. He is still a relatively young guy and I am sure he will reappear soon in some form or fashion – this is one famously hard-working exec that is certainly not ready to retire just yet.

What’s happening at Ford is just one indication that the automotive industry is set to change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50 – Detroit is mirroring that transformation as it too reshapes itself for the 21st century.

Clearly there is still a very long way to go in the resurgence of one of America’s iconic cities, but it is great to see the progress being made and optimism on display. I look forward to following this evolution in many further visits in the future.

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