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Super Bowl Week Yields A Lesson in Civics

Gubernatorial candidates, take note!

February 7, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

J. Kyle Keenan of the Detroit Free Press

Fans celebrate the Super Bowl, and Detroit.

DETROIT -- For a scarce few days last week before the Super Bowl, this city of tumult and change was caught, quite literally, in the bright wash of powerful spotlights. The streets were full of them, brightening the bottoms of steel gray clouds, making tall buildings shimmer and shine, backlighting the crowds filling a downtown beckoning with restaurants, shops, new homes, and laughter.

Up close it was as though all of Detroit, aglitter in new clothes and color, had arrived for its premiere. From afar the shoulders and crowns of the city’s skyscrapers looked like surgeons in a white-lit operating theater, peering down at a high-risk patient emerging from anesthesia.

For residents of the city and its suburbs transfixed by what they saw, it all seemed so unfamiliar, so disorienting. It’s been a very long time, decades in fact, since the line on Detroit’s cardiogram had beeped to such vigorous life. For that reason we moved past the jokes - Why did Detroit get the game? Baghdad was booked. (Palm Beach Post) – and shrugged off the contrast between the NFL’s gluttonous annual party and the city’s needful neighborhoods (The New York Times).

People sensed that behind the big game was an important back story, one that produced a freshly scrubbed and credible downtown and maybe even more than that. Indeed, the success of Super Bowl week offers lessons about clear goals, effective public and private investment, courage, and persistence that merit attention at every level of business and government, and need to be thoroughly discussed during this year’s gubernatorial race.

Downtown Detroit looked good because classic Michigan operating principles of creativity and hard work converged with a foreign cultural value: the cooperation that occurred between black and white business and civic leaders, Democrats and Republicans, and between the city and its suburbs.

This last point about untraditional allies toiling shoulder-to-shoulder to achieve something remarkable can’t be stressed enough. The Super Bowl organizing committee’s most important triumph was convincing people to cross race, class, political, and geographic boundaries to showcase Detroit. The other triumph, of course, was that they pulled it off, arguably the greatest economic and civic success in Michigan this century.

A Checkered History of Innovation and Ossification
We shouldn’t be that surprised. Ingenuity, discipline, and persistence are natural resources in Detroit. This is the city, after all, that produced two of the towering entrepreneurs of the 20th century – Henry Ford and Berry Gordy, Jr.

Mr. Ford’s tiny manufacturing center on Mack Avenue, like an experimental greenhouse, produced the seed corn for a new industrial age and an economy based on easy mobility. Mr. Gordy’s similarly cramped Motown studio in the basement of a house on West Grand Boulevard was a creative hive attended to by a blazingly talented staff of African American artists, musicians, and producers who turned out enduring hits that transcended race, class, and generations.

Still, even as Mr. Ford and Mr. Gordy reflect the state’s ability to innovate and thrive, their legacies also are emblematic of Michigan’s central vulnerability: a woeful capacity to adjust to fast-changing market conditions and a new economic era. It’s no accident that during Super Bowl week out of town writers used the two men to frame prominent articles about Michigan’s shallow reservoir of resilience.

Mr. Ford’s successors, after all, announced days before the game that they had misjudged the market so badly that 30,000 people were being run out of the company’s factories, including 1,200 at the Wixom Plant just beyond the city. And the Dunham Building, an old vacant masonry and glass high rise that, for a short time, served as extra downtown office space for Motown Records before Mr. Gordy left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, was demolished for Super Bowl parking. Scraping the Dunham from a site big enough to warehouse just 70 vehicles was seen as symbolic of urban abandonment and Detroit’s seemingly endless desire to rub out its past for nothing better.  

It’s possible that the human energy and marketing momentum that Super Bowl week generated could turn out to be a tipping point for Detroit and Michigan. As things stand now, the city and state are trembling  on the edge of an economic precipice. Michigan is in trouble not only because its businesses, trade organizations, and state government are mired in the old operating principles of the 20th century, but also because there is absolutely no agreement on a plan to compete in the 21st.

Politicians, Take Note!
If the early days of the gubernatorial race are any indication, we aren’t going to get much help from either major political party. Republican Dick DeVos, whose Web site offers astonishingly thin policy bromides, has embraced the standard GOP answer to every issue: Reduce taxes. Deregulate. Pray. Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, displaying her party’s disturbing inability to focus, promotes dozens of initiatives producing a typical welter of progressive confusion.

In performing so well last week, the Super Bowl organizing committee provided these two leaders, and everybody else in Michigan, a game plan based on proven principles that could help the entire state.

For one, the committee had a specific deadline and a clear goal. Six years ago, when the NFL awarded the big game to Detroit, the elected and the elite understood the opportunity for Michigan. They reached a rare agreement that the city needed to look and feel great in order for the state to effectively market itself to the world. Detroit’s condition was appropriately viewed as critical to the state’s well-being.

Second: The committee adopted a sound redevelopment plan that was embraced by the bankers, agreed to by the city and suburban political community, and resolutely overseen and executed by an untraditional alliance of leaders.

Third: The committee stayed on message and stuck to its plan.

It worked. Writers, broadcasters, and visitors from around the world noted good things occurring – $3 billion in public and private investment, 134 construction projects, 70 new businesses, hundreds of new lofts, new streets, new parks, new restaurants, new life - in Michigan’s most important city.

At its heart, the project to invest and show off Detroit’s downtown represents a classic Michigan entrepreneurial and creative response to an extraordinarily difficult problem. The lessons learned over the last six years must be documented and shared.

When faced with an immensely complex task, the organizers and workers who executed Detroit’s light filled Super Bowl week bound themselves to an all too rare regional pact. Urgency yielded clear ideas about what to do and how to do it. Smart, industrious, committed people turned to each other instead of shrinking away.

Keith Schneider, a journalist, is the editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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