Print Friendly and PDF

Detroit ‘a place you can do well by being on the ground floor of opportunity,’ Rock Ventures’ Cullen tells Detroit Policy Conference

From Crain’s Detroit Business

February 28, 2013

By Sherri Welch and Kirk Pinho

The man working side by side with Dan Gilbert on revitalization strategies for Detroit opened the 2013 Detroit Policy Conference today with a keynote that focused primarily on “the other side of the story.”

“It’s been a real challenge for us as you confront headlines like we see here,” with news of an emergency financial manager or bankruptcy for Detroit, political scandals and population loss, said Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Rock Ventures LLC.

With the drumbeat of negative news, people perceive that Detroit is a disaster and doesn’t have a future, Cullen told an estimated 800 attendees at the second annual policy conference.

“Today, what I’d like to do is talk about the other side of the story.”

Cullen devoted most of his speech to highlighting the city’s assets and all of the positive momentum taking place on the part of Quicken Loans Inc., Rock and others.

“We’ve got our own pictures … beautiful waterfront, public gardens … architecture … a number of people are starting to see Detroit like we do … a place you can do well by being on the ground floor of opportunity,” he said.

Cullen pointed out that rental unit occupancy of the downtown and Midtown areas is about 97 percent as a result of the Live Downtown and Live Midtown initiatives.

“We think that in Detroit, we’re reaching a point that new construction is going to make a lot of sense for new residential because there’s such demand,” he said.

Cullen spoke of the 7,500-plus employees whom Quicken and Rock have brought downtown and the thousands of additional people moved into the city by employers including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and GalaxE. Solutions.

Rock has recruited more than 65 new businesses to take space in up to 15 buildings that Gilbert has acquired, including Chrysler Group LLC to the former Dime Building, now dubbed “Chrysler House”; Twitter to the Madison Building; and numerous entrepreneurs.

“As we bring all these people down(town), we suddenly find ourselves, unbelievably, running out of office space,” Cullen said.

People are living and working in the city now, helping create a tipping point for Detroit. But are they playing in the city?

“We’re doing OK in that regard, too,” Cullen said.

The annual tree-lighting and holiday events at Campus Martius drew tens of thousands of Detroit residents and thousands from outside the city, Cullen said.

Detroit offers great cultural assets, numerous entertainment options with professional sports and the casinos. Now retail is coming into the city, with stores such as Moosejaw roosting on Woodward for the indefinite future.

It’s always the same conversation, Cullen said. Retail won’t come into the city without enough people living there to create demand. And people won’t move into the city without the retail they seek around them.

“We are getting tired of the sequential discussion,” Cullen said. “We’re going to try to do a big bang,” bringing a bunch of retail into the city at the same time.

In addition to the retail plan it’s developing for the city, the popup stores it has helped locate on Woodward during the holidays and summer and the Z-shaped parking garage with ground-floor retail that it has in the works, Rock is considering options for the former Hudson’s space.

Functionally, the space will host retail on the ground floor with lots of parking and residential on top, Cullen said. Rock also wants the iconic site to be remarkable from a design perspective.

“We’re embarking on a design process for that site,” he said, bringing in designers from around the country and around the world to entertain different architectural concepts.

M1 Rail will be a game-changer for the city, Cullen said, noting that light rail propels economic development in every community in the U.S. where it has been built.

Rock is working with the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and others to develop activities that will draw people to Detroit. They plan to roll out those over the next couple of months, Cullen said.

But he offered teases of markets, beer gardens, games and activities in the Campus Martius/Cadillac Square area and a promenade down the center of Woodward to tie them together.

“There’s a rumor in town there’s a new buyer for Greektown,” Cullen quipped, a reference to Gilbert’s effort to acquire the casino and hotel. “If that happens, I have it on good authority there’s a lot of things that will happen.”

Among the glimpses he provided of changes that could come as a result of Gilbert’s acquisition of Greektown: Opening the Greektown district so people can patronize restaurants and stores and connecting Greektown to Campus Martius and the entertainment district with the stadiums.

“We fundamentally believe we have a foundation in place now in the city of Detroit that’s going to allow us to build on it,” Cullen said.

A vibrant downtown Detroit is essential for the health of the region, he said.

“Enough of kicking the can down the road,” Cullen said, referring to the city’s ongoing financial problems.

“Please, let’s get on with it. We’ve been ignoring some things … for too long.”

Cullen’s remarks came as Gov. Rick Snyder is considering whether to appoint an emergency manager for the city, which faces a cumulative cash deficit of $100 million by June 30, a $327 million general fund deficit in fiscal year 2012 and more than $14 billion in debt.

Sherri Welch: (313) 446-1694, Twitter: @sherriwelch

Kirk Pinho: (313) 446-0412, Twitter: @kirkpinhoCDB