Detroit battles bad rap, bad image

“It’s takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to lose it.” That comes from Warren Buffett, one of the richest guys in the world.

“To gain a good reputation, endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” That’s from the Greek philosopher Socrates.

“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” That’s from auto magnate Henry Ford, the man who made Detroit the Motor City.

For decades, the city that built its fame around cars has been trying to shake its image of being economically depressed, dirty and dangerous.

Detroit will host next year’s Super Bowl, a fact that recently prompted Milwaukee talk radio hosts to joke about how that’s a helluva poor reward for working so hard. The city also will host this year’s Major League All-Star game, and the NCAA’s Final Four basketball championship in 2009.

Add the 2004 Ryder Cup, and it’s a fast-track resume.

How did all this happen, the baffled radio heads asked? Seems like the times, they are a-changin’ and Mr. Ford today would have good reason to feel proud about more than his assembly lines.

The city’s downtown revitalization goes back to 1978, when the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. was formed to bring in businesses and people. Comerica Park, home of the Tigers, opened in 2000. Ford Field, home of the Lions, opened in 2002. The two new stadiums are within a short walk downtown.

Much hope also is attached to the recent opening of Campus Martius Park, a new park for skating, concerts and festivals. Downtown condos are going up. Cultural and theater districts are ripening.

So when I say that I recently loved being snowbound in downtown Detroit, it’s no joke. The city was clobbered with a foot of snow, so much that it delayed the start of a new winter festival.

Eventually, though, dog sledders whisked past the Hard Rock Café. Kids in bright blue inner tubes were flying down a hill of snow, two at a time. Some people maneuvered the fat blanket of flakes in snowshoes.

There were tents with music, hot soups to steam up eyeglasses, fire pits to toast marshmallows and thaw hands. Visitors also had free access and shuttle service to more than a dozen museums and other cultural attractions.

The Motown Winter Blast, on about six square blocks downtown, had its test drive this year and will be the backdrop for Super Bowl XL. It’s a way to enhance the city’s image during nationwide TV exposure, entertain visitors and boost morale locally.

“I feel there is a self-image problem among Detroiters,” says Susan Sherer, of the event’s host committee, also noting that “we don’t have a place like (New Orleans’) Bourbon Street for the critical mass to gather” after a major event.

Some locals make comparisons to Cleveland, another Midwestern city with identity problems – alleviated with the downtown opening of Jacobs Field in 1994, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame/Museum in 1995 and Cleveland Browns Stadium in 1999.

It is not yet a picture of euphoria in either Cleveland or Detroit, but there is a logical snowballing of economic growth when commitments are made to attractions like these.

For example, the Motor City has recently gained two dozen restaurants downtown, most with a trendy cuisine and upscale decor. The large windows of Seldom Blues give diners a clear and direct view of Windsor, Canada, which is a half-mile away. There is tapas-style dining, a communal atmosphere and a high need for dinner reservations at Small Plates.

History buffs would likely appreciate a pre-show dinner at The Century Grille, inside the Gem and Century Theatre building, which is 101 years old. A Guinness world record was set in 1997, when the building became the heaviest ever moved on wheels.

It was relocated just five blocks, to make room for the new football and baseball stadiums.

The 1894 Whitney mansion – formerly the 52-room home of a lumber baron – also is open for leisurely fine dining, and its Sunday brunch is particularly popular. The three-floor and 20-fireplace, pink granite, Romanesque building also can be toured.

For more about Detroit tourism, go to www.visitdetroit.com or call (800) DETROIT.

Whenever I participate in an elaborate press trip, I send a check to a nonprofit entity that deserves more money and exposure. This time, my contribution has gone to the Motown History Museum, a humble and dynamic site that is rich with sentiment and unduplicated music history.

This is where Motown music was defined by dozens of great musicians, The Temptations and The Supremes to Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. It is full of trivia, memorabilia, treasures and the simple but profound workings of Studio A.

Berry Gordy Jr. started this business in 1959, with an $800 loan from his family. He eventually sold his majority holdings for $61 million, It is a tremendous story of how unpolished street musicians turned into superstars, how race was irrelevant when the music and message were good.

Now Esther Gordy Edwards, the founder’s sister, owns the museum and the original recording site.

For more, go to www.motownmuseum.com or call (313) 875-2264.

A part of the Detroit dream is to add a second Motown music attraction – larger, more sophisticated and interactive – to the downtown, giving people a new reason to visit.