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Riley: Duggan asks Gilbert to lead regional team to lure Amazon to Detroit

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he has tapped Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert to recruit what he hopes will be a regional team to present a single proposal to convince the Seattle-based online retail giant Amazon to build a second headquarters in Motown.

And Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah said Wednesday that officials and community leaders are 24 to 48 hours away from completing the assembly of regional Amazon bid team members, including Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who said: “Basically, we’ll be working together. Something that big, clearly 50,000 jobs, will require a regional approach, and I look forward to working on the team.”

Duggan doubled down on his assertion that Detroit has a shot at landing the headquarters, disagreeing with a national news analysis that says the city doesn’t have a chance because of the online retail giant’s needs.

Jeff Bezos set off a “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”-type competition last week, requesting proposals nationwide. The golden ticket? A $5-billion behemoth and up to 50,000 jobs.

But a widely circulated New York Times analysis, citing criteria from the company’s request for proposals, an analysis that had Detroit initially in the running dropped Motown after the first criteria: area where job growth is strong.

So Detroit wasn’t included as the Times whittled down an urban list based on: a large and growing labor pool; a high quality of life; easy transit around town; and “space and a willingness to pay to play” — winding up with Denver as the likely winner.

Duggan said people shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that last criteria: space, which the comeback city has in spades.

“We’re talking 500,000 square feet of office space initially, but could be 8 million square feet over time,” Duggan said. “I don’t expect that all to be in the downtown area. One thing that is unique is: There is the ability to build several million square feet of office space in downtown Detroit in a series of buildings woven into downtown. That’s an opportunity that they’re not going to find in any downtown in any other city in the country. So the concept that Amazon has, a campus woven into an urban community, is one that Detroit is uniquely positioned to offer.”

Duggan said that he’s been buoyed by the effort so far to work together.

“The governor called me from a bus in Japan the day the RFP came out to say his team was all in on this,” Duggan said. “I was very impressed with that. I was impressed that he had phone service on a bus in Japan.

“Now we’re reaching out now to a whole range of partners to make sure everybody’s involved,” he said. “We’ve asked for one proposal for the metropolitan area. That doesn’t mean somebody in a suburban community couldn’t put one in, but we’re going to try to put together the broadest coalition we can. We’re reaching out to everybody because the reality is if they are seriously talking about 50,000 people and 8 million square feet, which is their build-out number, it’s not all going to be in one city. No matter where you are.”

The battle for the headquarters come as Detroit continues a renaissance that began when it emerged in December 2014 from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Thanks to Gilbert, the family of the late Mike Ilitch and a host of developers who haven’t gotten as much attention, the city has sown   a boon in development and population and excitement.

And while the RFP doesn’t mention it, Detroit has another not-so-secret weapon Bezos should consider: Its people and a can-do spirit of work that has existed here since before Henry Ford created the assembly line.

You can’t dismiss an asset as strong as Detroit’s people, those who have been here and those who are coming, people who are hungry for a new beginning. Some say Amazon will bring its workforce with it. Some of us contend that there is a strong workforce already here, that, since the auto industry left them behind, has been awaiting a redefinition as strong as the city’s.

Amazon could train for work, not just bring work, and transform an American city. People around the world are taking part in this transformation, coming because property is cheap and opportunities are plentiful.

We have to stop always looking at our city as a glass to be bypassed. Sometimes the glass half empty — the glass that needs filling — is the right glass.

But the city and region still have lessons to learn about working together. One of the biggest Achilles’ heels in the city’s efforts to woo Amazon is the lack of a mass-transit system, which the majority of residents still don’t understand the need for. The Amazon effort might make it clearer.

And smaller suburban cities still feel the need to compete with Detroit — for everything. In this instance, suburban proposals to bring Amazon to, say, Oakland County, may just assure that southeastern Michigan is knocked out of the running.

It has happened before.

Baruah, the chamber head, recalled a conversation about Volkswagen choosing Tennessee over Michigan to build a new plant a few years ago, before he assumed his post at the chamber.

“It’s John Rakolta’s story,” Baruah said, “but I borrow it.”

“When John (CEO of Walbridge, which built the Tennessee plant) was in Frankfurt  talking to the then-CEO of Volkswagen, Michigan and Tennessee were the two finalist states, and Volkswagen ended up picking Tennessee. When John asked why, the CEO said that the financial deal put on the table by the state of Michigan was actually slightly better than the one from Tennessee but they chose Tennessee because of what he called ‘cohesion.’

“He said there were multiple levels of government unified and everyone saying, ‘We have one bid for you and we’re all going to support this,’ Baruah recalled. “In Michigan, people were tripping over each other and there were multiple bids and no alignment. People were competing against each other and we wanted a region where if we had a problem, we knew the   region would come together to solve the problem as opposed to pointing fingers.

“That’s why we’ve been working so hard to make sure this Amazon bid is a regional bid.”

Baruah said the Amazon team was within “24 to 48 hours away from having an organizational ethos set.”

“And when I say ‘we,’ I mean regional economic developers, the political officials … We’re at that point where we understand this needs to be one bid. We can’t go with multiple bids; we need to present the region. They’re obviously looking at downtown Detroit. But when you look at what they’ve done in Seattle, there are over 33 buildings in Seattle, so we know if we’re successful, chances are they might start expanding into different areas for different purposes and we want them to understand the entire set of assets the region has.”

Baruah also said that if Amazon chooses Detroit, the company’s employees would live across the region.

So the work has begun. And the mayor is smart to let two billionaires come together in this effort to possibly do something unexpected, something monumental for an American city. Word is they that Gilbert   and Bezos vacation in the same place, even if not together, and their worlds and language are a cut above conversations among the usual suspects.

This region needs one committee, one team, one proposal to show that what we dream is possible, is possible.

That is the other great lesson, great opportunity for metro Detroit possibly one of the last opportunities we’ll have to show that this region, which has been fragmented for so long, can come together for a common good.

Even if we don’t get Amazon, this could be the practice run for an entirely different way of doing business, a different way of luring the next company.

But why not start with Amazon?

We better try — because we’ll eventually work together or die apart.