By Nick Carey
DETROIT, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Dan Gilbert has a vision for downtown Detroit that many would find hard to square with the long, painful decline commonly associated with this city: a vibrant urban core full of creative, innovative and talented young people.
Yet Quicken Loans, the mortgage lender Gilbert co-founded in 1985, has invested $1 billion over three years, bought some 2.6 million square feet of commercial space in the downtown area and moved 7,000 employees there in a bid to make that vision a reality.
The company is in talks with 80 to 100 retail outlets and restaurants to open downtown space, and Gilbert and other business leaders have fronted most of the money for a $140 million light rail line in the heart of the city. Quicken has also invested in an incubator for technology startups, which now number 17.
Gilbert, who grew up in a Detroit suburb, wants to brake the exodus of educated young people from the only state in the country that lost population between 2000 and 2010. Among those who set up home elsewhere in recent years are two founders of daily deal marketer Groupon Inc, University of Michigan graduates from the Detroit area whose startup took root in Chicago.
"Young people are fleeing the state and we need to give them a reason to be here," Gilbert, 51, said in a recent interview in the Madison Theatre, one of many buildings his firm has bought.
Part of his zeal comes from his own need to attract top talent to Quicken Loans, which runs a nationwide online lending business that Gilbert says makes it "a tech company that happens to sell mortgages." Having avoided the subprime mortgages that crippled many of its competitors in the housing crash, the company has grown rapidly in recent years.
Quicken Loans moved downtown from the suburbs in 2010. Home loan volume went from $30 billion in 2011 to $70 billion in 2012; Gilbert sees it rising to $100 billion this year. He anticipates Quicken will surpass JP Morgan Chase as the country's No. 2 retail home loan provider during this quarter.
The company gives employees who buy property in the city a gift of $20,000 on condition they live in the city for five years. Residential real estate occupancy rates in the downtown and midtown areas are close to 100 percent.
That's helping to fill in the public services, cut as part of Detroit's attempt to stave off bankruptcy. Quicken has installed cameras and hired security teams to ensure employee safety.
'DE FACTO RACISM'
Gilbert's deep pockets have their detractors. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times entitled "Detroit, the Billionaire's Playground," author Mark Binelli said residents worried that Michigan may install an unelected emergency financial manager to fix the city's finances "shouldn't forget the ways in which power has already been ceded to an unelected oligarchy, whose members might, no matter how ostensibly well intentioned, possess questionable ideas about urban renewal."
There is also some criticism that the downtown redevelopment is creating an island of prosperity detached from the city's black inhabitants, who make up 83 percent of the population.
Hard data does not exist for the racial makeup of downtown, but it is generally whiter and wealthier than Detroit's poor neighborhoods. "We're focused on downtown - that's where we can make a difference," Gilbert says.
While there may be security and other menial jobs for Detroit's African American population downtown, Mayor Dave Bing, who is black, says the city needs investment in retraining and educating workers who in the past held automotive or manufacturing jobs for jobs in the city's new economy.
For others, the focus on downtown is a slap in the face for Detroit's poor blacks. "This is de facto racism," said Pastor D. Alexander Bullock, a local leader of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition. "There is clearly a plan to invest in the downtown area, but there has been no urban reinvestment in poor black neighborhoods."
Mayor Bing, who is cutting spending to try to avert the state's takeover of the city's dismal finances, is grateful for the assist.
"Downtown is coming back very strong, and that has been driven by the private sector," he said.
Sarah Brithinee, 26, is one of those who sees a "land of opportunity" in her hometown of Detroit, the opposite of the crowded marketplace she found during three years in Los Angeles.
Having returned in 2011, she is chief executive of Wedit, which rents out digital cameras for wedding parties, then edits the footage into commemorative videos.
"I feel for the first time in my life I am making a real difference by coming back to Detroit," Brithinee said.
Gilbert's father and grandfather both owned businesses in Detroit before much of the city's white population began moving to the suburbs 80 years ago, where there were federal subsidies for land. That exodus accelerated after race riots in 1943 and 1968 and was compounded by the slow decline of automotive jobs.
On the walls of some of the office space Quicken has taken over in Detroit there are giant black and white reproductions of photos of the city in all its glory, a hustling, bustling city with a dynamic core.
For Elizabeth Rose those images are part of her childhood in the 1960s when her father worked as a mortgage banker in the First National Building downtown, a building Quicken Loans now owns. Rose runs the first branch of coffee emporium Roasting Plant outside New York on the ground floor, where beans are piped up from the basement and roasted.
"For me, coming back was all about Quicken Loans and the commitment they have made to Detroit," Rose said. "I wouldn't have come back if they weren't doing this."
50-year-old Dan Gilbert owns Rock Ventures, the holding company with flagship company Quicken Loans. He has <a href="http://www.forbes.com/profile/daniel-gilbert/" target="_hplink">a net worth of $1.9 billion</a>, according to Forbes. Gilbert has been making investments in Detroit for several years, kickstarted when he moved 1,700 Quicken employees downtown to the Compuware Building. Lest we forget, when he's not in Detroit, he's in Cleveland. In the sports world, the Cavaliers owner is known more for <a href="http://www.nba.com/cavaliers/news/gilbert_letter_100708.html" target="_hplink">an angry 2010 letter written in Comic Sans</a> with liberal use of caps lock after former Cavs star LeBron James left the team than his business savvy. But in Detroit, the billionaire owns more than 2.6 million square feet of commercial property, second only to General Motors, and a look at his 15 buildings -- and what's inside them -- shows a vision for a developing Detroit. FILE - Developer and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert ponders a question during a news conference in Cleveland Wednesday, June 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Quicken Loans is one of several Detroit companies participating in the Live Downtown program, an initiative that encourages professionals to relocate to the greater downtown by offering financial incentives: a $20,000 forgivable loan for new homeowners toward the purchase of their primary residence and a $2,500 allowance for renters toward the cost of their apartment in the first year followed by additional funding of $1,000 for the second year. 178 Quicken Loans employees took advantage of the program in 2012. <em>Flickr photo of the Broderick Tower <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/clobby/142041688/">by clobby</a>.</em>
Chrysler Comes To Detroit
In April, Gilbert pulled Chrysler Group into the fold. The car company announced it would have its first downtown Detroit presence. The 1912 Dime Building, owned by Rock Ventures, was renamed Chrysler House in honor of their leasing the top two floors and moving to the new offices. “The future of Chrysler Group and the City of Detroit are inextricably tied,” said Sergio Marchionne, Chairman and CEO, Chrysler Group LLC. “In order to reflect this we want to go beyond spiritual or symbolic evidence of our faith in the City’s future by establishing a physical presence people can see and be proud of.” DETROIT, MI, - APRIL 30: Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert (L) and Chrysler Group Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne announce that Chrysler will have an office presence in downtown Detroit for the first time on April 30, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.The Chrysler Group will be renaming the Rock Ventures Historic Dime Building the 'Chrysler House'. (photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Jobs At Quicken Loans
In 2012, the Quicken family of companies added 3,300 employees to their Detroit team, including new hires and relocations. They have 7,000 employees in Detroit. The company was named <a href="http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9227166/100_Best_Places_to_Work_in_IT_2012">a top five place to work in IT</a> by Computer World earlier this year.
Light Rail On Woodward Avenue
As one of the M-1 Rail investors, Dan Gilbert, has been a champion of a light rail line down Woodward Avenue in Detroit. When the government chose to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/16/detroit-light-rail-canceled-bus-rapid-transit_n_1154172.html">move forward with a bus rapid transit system</a> over a light rail line, the private group <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/23/m1-rail-woodward-avenue-detroit-light-rail-_n_1447104.html">continued to raise money for the project</a>. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in June that certain <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/04/detroit-light-rail-stalled-us-secretary-of-transportation-ray-lahood-concerns_n_1567718.html">steps needed to be taken</a> before the light rail project could get federal support. After years of false starts, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/19/rick-snyder-signs-detroit-laws_n_2332728.html">legislation passed earlier this month that will pave the way for a regional transit authority</a>, one of LaHood's requirements. The light rail line would be part of Gilbert's vision of a revitalized Woodward corridor.
Training Detroit's Younger Talent
Quicken Loans also taught skills to a younger workforce, offering paid internships in Detroit to 550 individuals in 2012.
IT In The D
In June, Quicken Loans partnered with other businesses to start a program that prepares Michigan college students for local tech jobs, equipping them with skills to find jobs and simultaneously helping the burgeoning tech sector grow. According to CBS Detroit, IT in the D is a <a href="http://detroit.cbslocal.com/2012/12/13/it-in-the-d-gets-new-partners-extends-program/">10-week session that teaches IT professionals and students tech skills</a>. The program founders signed a Memorandum of Understanding in December. Through the establishment of the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance as the program's fiscal agency, made it eligible to apply for grants and funding.
Silicon Valley To Detroit
Gilbert isn't just trying to train a local workforce, but is actively recruiting tech professionals nationally. In April, Yahoo announced <a href="http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/news/story/2012-04-04/yahoo-layoffs/53990868/1">layoffs of 2,000 employees</a>, prompting the "<a href="http://detroitventurepartners.com/dna/family-companies/valleytodetroit/">Valley to Detroit</a>" initiative, which urges former Yahoo employees in the Silicon Valley to apply to Detroit tech jobs. This Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, photo, shows a sign in front of Yahoo! headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. Yahoo has ushered in Marissa Mayer as its new CEO with a third-quarter earnings report that topped analyst estimates. The results announced Monday Oct. 22, 2012, show Yahoo's net revenue barely grew at a time when advertisers are spending more money marketing their products and services online. Nevertheless, the numbers were slightly better than analysts projected. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Twitter Comes To Detroit
Though <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/twitter-opens-detroit-office-madison-building_n_1402644.html">Twitter's April launch of a Detroit office</a> came with no new jobs at the time, it sent the internet abuzz, branding Detroit as a burgeoning tech capital. The social media giant opened an office in the Gilbert-owned M@dison Building, also home to two venture capital firms and a host of tech startups. "Twitter coming downtown is exactly the kind of innovative company Detroit needs to advance our vision of becoming one of the most exciting high-tech and web-centered corridors of growth and activity found anywhere," Gilbert said at the time. In a Silicon Valley get, in December, two-year-old Stik.com <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2012/12/10/detroit-two-point-oh/">moved to the M@dison Building</a>. The website, founded by two Michiganders who were classmates of Mark Zuckerberg, uses Facebook to bring the personal business referral process online. <em>Modified Flickr photo <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/femaletrumpet02/94769709/sizes/z/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">by femaletrumpet02</a> and HuffPost Detroit.</em>
Quicken Loans launched its <a href="http://opportunitydetroit.com/">Opportunity Detroit campaign</a> with a commercial reminiscent of Chrysler's "<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKL254Y_jtc">Imported from Detroit</a>" spots, during the World Series. According to Crain's Detroit Business, the campaign was created in a week, and is meant to show off the city's growing tech economy. While it might not show a new side of the city to Detroiters, the campaign's website is geared towards promoting the positive aspects of the city's growth to a national audience.
Filling Office Space Downtown
GIlbert isn't just hoarding buildings, but filling them at an impressive rate. Company after company has announced a new office downtown, from Twitter to Chrysler. But while those two caused a stir, there are many more. Gilbert is building the Detroit workforce -- and with the Live Downtown incentives, perhaps bringing in residents, too. More than 60 companies have moved to or opened offices in Rock Ventures buildings since August 2010. As it stands, the M@dison Building and Chase Tower are 100 percent occupied, First National is 93 percent occupied, Chrysler House is 92 percent occupied and One Woodward is 60 percent occupied. In 2012, Rock Connections moved 115 employees to Chase Tower from Southfield; Sachse Construction moved 45 employees to the Arts League Building from Birmingham; law firm HSP moved nine employees to Chrysler House from Farmington Hills; national real estate appraisal company Metro-West Appraisal announced 2013 plans to move its national headquarters and 40 employees to Chrysler House from Northville and Rock Ventures' Title Source moved 1,500 Michigan employees to the First National Building. Elite Fire Safety in Southfield, Allied Printing Company in Ferndale, SCI Marketview in Ontario, security company GSI in Troy, ProfessionalMovers.com in Walled Lake, staffing company EverStaff in Cleveland and real estate IT company FNC Holding Company of Oxford, Miss. opened additional offices in the Chrysler House this year. Pictured: Chrysler House, formerly known as the Dime Building.
Several businesses opened in the ground floor and retail spaces in Gilbert's buildings. In addition to several less-permanent pop-ups like Moosejaw and Somerset CityLoft, espresso bar Chez Zara opened in the M@dison Building and cupcake shop <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/14/just-baked-cupcake-shop-detroit-bakery-dime-building_n_1276616.html">Just Baked</a> opened at Chrysler House. The Roasting Plant, a coffee shop founded in New York, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/09/the-roasting-plant-opens-detroit-location-new-york-city-coffee-shop-first-national-building_n_1504237.html">announced plans for a Detroit location</a> inside the First National Building earlier this year, though the opening date has been pushed back to early 2013.
Detroit Venture Partners
Dan Gilbert launched <a href="http://detroitventurepartners.com/">Detroit Venture Partners</a> with Josh Linkner and Brian Hermelin in 2010 and were joined by Earvin “Magic” Johnson in 2011. DVP, which doesn't disclose the size of their fund, invests in early-stage and seed tech companies -- several that are housed in the M@dison Building. According to TechCruch, DVP <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2012/12/10/detroit-two-point-oh/">has made 15 investments as of mid-December</a>, with plans to invest in eight to 10 companies annually. It's invested in daily deals site <a href="https://www.quikly.com/notify/43-10-in-movie-tickets">Quikkly</a>, mobile jukebox app <a href="http://roqbot.com/">Roqbot</a>, social platform UpTo, CAPTCHA replacer <a href="http://areyouahuman.com/">Are You a Human</a>, social style website <a href="http://www.stylecaster.com/">Stylecaster</a> and <a href="http://detroitventurepartners.com/portfolio/">more</a>. FILE - In this July 21, 2011 file photo, Hall-of-Fame basketball player turned businessman Magic Johnson, left, and CEO and managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners Josh Linkner appear during a news conference in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Kresge Building And Adjacent 1217 Woodward Ave.
Dan Gilbert ended December with a shopping spree, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/18/dan-gilbert-buys-5-detroit-buildings-_n_2324609.html">snapping up five buildings</a> and bringing his total count up to 15 -- eight purchased this year alone. The Kresge building (left), located on Woodward Avenue at State Street, was built in 1891. The first floor, where the Detroit Shoppe and Detroit Artist Market pop-up stores currently sell their wares, will be renovated and continue to be used for retail. The above floors will be used for offices or residential space. 1217 Woodward Ave., right, will be renovated to accommodate first-floor retail and office or residential space above.
Small Plates Building
The building at 1521 Broadway, one of the five purchased by Rock Ventures in late December, currently houses the restaurant Small Plates. It is 100 percent occupied, with residential lofts above.
Cary Building Lofts
Also on Broadway, the Cary Building Lofts were another of the late December purchases. The 1906 building will be renovated for retail at ground level and residential space above the first floor.
1412 Woodward Ave.
Gilbert also purchased the building at 1412 Woodward Ave., between Grand River Avenue and John R Street, in late December. Currently unoccupied, it will be used for retail and offices.
One Woodward Building
In the first week of December, Rock Ventures <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/03/one-woodward-detroit-dan-gilbert_n_2232486.html">announced the purchase of One Woodward Avenue</a>, a building designed by Minoru Yamasaki and built in 1962. The building is said to have inspired the architect's design of the former World Trade Center. The 26-story building was 60 percent occupied when purchased, with Quicken Loans renting out an additional eight floors after.
New Z-Shaped Development
In November, Rock Ventures announced they were getting into the construction game, too, and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/01/dan-gilbert-detroit-z-development_n_2059562.html">building a new development downtown</a> that will serve as a parking garage for 1,300 cars and retail space for approximately 10 stores on the ground floor. Shaped like a Z and taking the space of existing surface lots, the new development will hit the corner of East Grand River Avenue and Broadway Street and Gratiot Avenue and Library Street.
Historic Federal Reserve Building
In January, Rock Ventures <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/30/dan-gilberts-rock-ventures-federal-reserve-building-detroit_n_1241647.html">purchased the Historic Federal Reserve Building</a>. The 1927 building at 160 W. Fort St. had been vacant since 2004.
1550 Woodward Ave.
Gilbert also picked up the one-story building at 1550 Woodward Ave. in January, which will be used for retail or commercial space.
Map Of Rock Ventures' 15 Downtown Detroit Properties