Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

Detroit: A City Where Pride Meets Possibilities

by By David McMillin | Dec 03, 2012
Detroit is putting itself back on the map with it's new downtown convention center, the Cobo Center.
pcma behind the city

There is an empty field in Detroit on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Trumbull Street. When you peer between the squares of the chain-link fence that surrounds the land, patches of grass pave the way to a baseball diamond where the paint of the foul lines has washed away and the bleachers have been removed. 


This is not just any field. This is the site of the old Tiger Stadium, and on Sunday, the field won't be empty. There will be volunteers pulling weeds, picking up trash and maintaining this piece of the Motor City's history.

They come each week, Bill Bohde, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Detroit Metro CVB, tells me. They call themselves the Navin Field Grounds Crew, a nod to the name of the stadium when it first opened in 1912. There's a brand new ballpark 1.3 miles away where the Tigers just hosted a World Series, but like so many corners in Detroit, this spot has history that deserves to be remembered.

When I spent two days in Detroit in mid-November, I got a glimpse of that history, but I also got an even bigger view of Detroit's future. Less than a block away from that empty field, the street is lined with bars, coffee shops, restaurants and real estate developers that symbolize where Detroit is going. This is Corktown, an area where the city's revitalization stands in the spotlight.

"After the stadium left, people thought that the neighborhood would fall apart," Renee Monforton, director of communications, Detroit Metro CVB, says. "Instead, it's building. People want to call this place home."

More Than Motors in Michigan

You've seen the headlines of abandoned buildings in Detroit. However, "abandoned" implies that they've been left for good - - that no one cares.

That's not the case.

"Naturally, people have tied Detroit to the auto industry, but there is so much more to this city than cars," Larry Alexander, President and CEO, Detroit Metro CVB, says.

While Detroit automakers are already enjoying a return to profitability, there are plenty of other industries that call the Motor City home, too. From software giant Compuware to online lender Quicken Loans to a cast of booming tech start-ups, Detroit is welcoming plenty of new businesses, new residents and new opportunities for growth.

"This is a city that's weathered many storms," Alexander says. "Detroit doesn't take 'no' for an answer, and right now, you're seeing that spirit come to life."

When Alexander talks about Detroit, his excitement is contagious. He does not speak with the traditional jargon of the travel industry. He speaks with a genuine love and respect for the people he calls his neighbors, the businesses he calls his members and the place he calls his home. Everywhere you turn in the Motor City, that love and respect are easily justified.

Detroit is a city of possibilities in motion. Merchants are moving into once-vacant storefronts on Woodward Avenue. The marquis at the renowned Fox Theater glimmers with anticipation of the evening's upcoming Bob Dylan show. Bikers and runners line the city's new 3.5-mile RiverWalk where the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has installed the latest displays of its Public Art Program.

"When I first came to Detroit, my perception was just like many Americans," Bohde, who moved from Kansas City in March, says. "I was wrong."

The Rebirth of Meetings in the Motor City

There's no better place to feel part of the Detroit renaissance than the Cobo Center. The city's downtown convention center is in the midst of a $299 million renovation, but this is more than a facility overhaul. This is a transformation.

Thom Connors, general manager, Cobo Center, hands me a hard hat and an orange vest. He walks through the construction site like a proud parent, painting a portrait of what will be completed by the end of 2014. Visitors will be greeted by a stunning all-glass atrium that will replace the old gray facade. Meeting attendees won't be staring at walls anymore, he tells me. They'll be taking in magnificent views of the waterfront in 25,000 additional square footage of meeting space. Connors points to what will soon be a 40,000-square foot Grand Ballroom.

"What's happening here is putting us back on the convention map," Connors says. "Many groups are taking a second look."

Those groups like what they see. Corporations like BASF and Novonordis have already held events in the partially-completed center. In 2015, Cobo will welcome the ASAE Annual Meeting. The North American International Auto Show, Detroit's crown jewel of convention business, recently extended its contract through 2017.

As more planners return for site visits, they'll see a convention center equipped with the bells, the whistles and the technologies essential to meetings today, but don't expect the same convention center experience that runs together in so many cities across America.

Connors and his team are developing a state-of-the-art facility that planners, exhibitors and attendees will only find in the state of Michigan. From the locally-sourced food at the Cobo Center's new Eatsville USA to authentic gifts in The Detroit Shoppe, the building brings to life that tagline recently made famous by Chrysler: "Imported from Detroit."

Those three words are much more than an attempt to sell cars. They symbolize the one thing that all Detroiters share: pride. It's the reason that a group of them clean that empty field on Michigan and Trumbull every weekend, and it's the reason that someday that field won't be empty anymore. Whether it's a new city park, a retail center or a high-rise condo building, a sign of Detroit's promising future will rise from the ruins.

"We've come a long way already," Bohde tells me. "Still, we have so much to look forward to."

Your Don't-Miss-in-Detroit List

Planning a site visit? Thinking of a personal vacation? Whatever takes you to Detroit, here are three can't-miss places in the Motor City.


Slows BBQ. 2138 Michigan Avenue.

With a menu of mouthwatering, slow-roasted masterpiece sandwiches and an impressive list of microbrews to wash down your meal, Detroit's BBQ is on par with anything you'll find in Austin, Kansas City or Memphis.

Happy Hour

Roast. 1128 Washington Boulevard.

A Michael Symon property on the ground level of the restored Westin Book Cadillac, Roast boasts an impressive list of specialty cocktails and craft beers. Get there early – this is the unofficial 5 o'clock downtown spot.


Detroit Institute of the Arts. 5200 Woodward Avenue.

New York, Chicago - - add Detroit to your list of must-see art exhibits. If you're there on a Friday, you'll find a double-dose of culture with the DIA's Friday Night Live! music series.

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