Cleveland Hustles: The Hustle Continues

Billionaire Dan Gilbert's mission to rebuild Detroit as a hub of 'muscles and brains'

To say the Motor City had a steep climb back to normalcy would be an understatement.

As one of America's hardest-hit areas by the Great Recession, Detroit unemployment was running nearly three times as high as the national average in 2009 at a staggering 28 percent — and the city was bleeding population, losing inhabitants every year for the last six years.

Succumbing to the reality of how far it had fallen, Detroit became the largest U.S. city to file for chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013.

But thanks to the efforts of several leaders, Detroit has risen from the ashes. And the new Detroit is here to stay, according to Quicken Loans founder and Detroit billionaire Dan Gilbert, who has poured nearly $2 billion of his own money into revitalization efforts.

Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Detroit-based Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Inc. and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Jeff Kowalsky | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Detroit-based Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Inc. and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"This is past the point of being a false start or some kind of fad," Gilbert said, adding that the city has taken on an entirely new swagger.

"The vibe of Detroit I think can best be described as being at the intersection of muscles and brains. Muscles: we're still moving things, we're still making things. And the brains part is we now are a very, very hot spot for technology, entrepreneurs, people who are creating innovative ideas. So we got it both here."

No doubt the city has seen a broad resurgence of jobs since the days of bailing out the big three automakers. Detroit job creation, led by additions in manufacturing, helped bring unemployment down from its peak at 28 percent to where it sits now around six percent.

For Gilbert, whose father and grandfather both ran small businesses in the city when he was young, investing in Detroit stems from a place of pride but isn't solely defined by it. In 2009, he announced his company's headquarters would relocate from Detroit's suburbs to the city, bringing along what became more than 15,000 employees.

"There's a part of it that is about community and altruism and all that, but the other part is truly about business. I don't think we'd be the business that we are today if we were spread out in the suburban areas," he said, adding that he wanted to capitalize on talent and the millennial trend to flock to urban cores.


Detroit has completely revitalized many downtown areas like Rivard Park (shown now on the right,) in part with help from Gilbert’s Rock Ventures.
Source: Rock Ventures
Detroit has completely revitalized many downtown areas like Rivard Park (shown now on the right,) in part with help from Gilbert’s Rock Ventures.

However, Detroit was filled with abandoned houses and blighted buildings following the housing crisis as real estate prices plummeted. Basic services were neglected and streetlights remained dark.

"To me, that was the number one thing that had to happen," he said. "I was the co-chair of the blight task force and almost 11,000 homes have been taken down in the last few years."

Meanwhile, Bedrock, the real estate arm of Gilbert's Rock Ventures, scooped up over 95 properties in downtown Detroit, according to analysis from The Detroit News, renovating and filling buildings that had long stood vacant.

A general view of the new home of the NHL Detroit Red Wings, Little Caesars Arena, being built along Woodward Ave. shown prior to the the MLB game between the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park on May 18, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan.
Mark Cunningham | MLB Photos | Getty Images
A general view of the new home of the NHL Detroit Red Wings, Little Caesars Arena, being built along Woodward Ave. shown prior to the the MLB game between the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park on May 18, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan.

Of course, Gilbert was not alone on his mission to rebuild the city. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has been applauded for the change he has brought, as have efforts from another billionaire Detroit family. Using a portion of his family's worth built from founding the Little Caesars Pizza empire and owning the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, Chris Ilitch has invested in building out a 50-block district surrounding the site of the new Red Wings arena he expects to open in 2017.

With so much promise, Gilbert is optimistic Detroit will once again start seeing a rising population. "That intersection of muscles and brains is a great place to be," he said.