The Motor City has an ambitious New Year’s Resolution in 2006 – restore civic pride and create a sense of optimism about its latest urban renewal efforts. When Detroit won its bid to host Super Bowl XL (40) on February 5, the city knew it had to leave an impression on visitors that didn’t have anything to do with poverty and abandoned buildings. Economic and government leaders joined forces to sign up volunteers, raise funds and create a host committee to make the city more friendly towards business and visitors. Selected to head Detroit’s Super Bowl Host Committee was race car legend and entrepreneur Roger Penske.
By any objective standard, the hard-working 68-year-old billionaire has earned a reputation for having the Midas touch. He made his name as a race-car driver in the late 50’s and retired from racing widely regarded as the top driver in the world in 1962. In the years that followed, Penske built a highly successful racing team and pioneered a series of successful ventures in the automotive industry. Today, he leads a 43-member board of directors, full staff and army of volunteers that is mobilized for the effort of convincing the world that Detroit is back.
It’s been 50 years since Detroit’s decline began, when the automotive capital of the world began to lose population to expanding suburban areas. Difficulties mounted in the decades afterward, from race riots in the 60’s to high unemployment in the 70’s. Detroit became emblematic of difficult national tensions as Coleman Young became one of the nation’s first prominent African-American mayors in the aftermath of the civil rights struggle. While his election in 1973 was hailed as a major breakthrough in the color barrier, Young became known as a “bull in the china shop” that alienated the automakers at a time when Detroit needed employers in order to sustain a recovery.
Today, the government and business community appear to be singing off the same song sheet and have a vested interest in repairing the city’s tarnished image. As evidence of restoration in progress, they point to the new Campus Martius Park, trendy downtown lofts at Merchant’s Row on Woodward Avenue as well as the site of the Super Bowl, Ford Field. These projects have become a blueprint for future city projects that involve tax incentives for business owners and a mindset that is more focused on reinventing the city than trying to recapture its past. However, skeptics point to the city’s nagging credit problems and vast swaths of vacant buildings at a time when Detroit’s day of dominance in the auto industry appears to be over. No one is talking about reducing unemployment while General Motors faces bankruptcy and the city’s other auto manufacturers struggle to reverse shrinking market share on an annual basis. But the greatest challenge may be to convince Detroit’s own lifelong residents that the renewal is real, since conventional wisdom in Motown holds that the most significant improvements have been largely cosmetic.
Still, it can’t be a bad thing to have community, business and government leaders working towards positive changes and get a city mobilized in the right direction – and it isn’t every year that you get to host the Super Bowl.