The elephant in the room that kept Detroit out of the top 20 cities angling for the Amazon headquarters was simply the city’s reputation.
So says Dan Gilbert., Quicken Loans founder and chairman.
The accepted view is Detroit did not make Amazon’s next round because of its lack of talent and transportation. Not so fast, Gilbert says.
“You may be asking yourself: ‘If Detroit scored well on most other criteria, then why would the lack of mass transportation alone eliminate us from making the top 20?’” he says in a letter penned to the 60-plus Amazon HQ2 Detroit Bid Committee.
“After all, there are cities that made the list that are also missing adequate mass transit or other significant pieces of Amazon’s required criteria such as a major airport.”
The issue, instead, was what he calls “the unique radioactive-like reputational fallout of 50-60 years of economic decline, disinvestment, municipal bankruptcy, and all of the other associated negative consequences of that extraordinarily long period of time.”
Those old, negative reputations do not die easily, he says, and that negative perception overshadowed Detroit’s progress.
“It is clear that we don’t do ourselves any favors by feeding the pessimistic narrative about Detroit and our region when this view is not anywhere near the balanced, full story,” he says. “I believe this is the single largest obstacle that we face.”
The solution is to bring more people to Detroit so they can see and feel the city’s growth and opportunities it offers.
“We have witnessed for ourselves, time after time, those who have recently visited the Motor City leave with a completely turned around, positive impression of our city, an impression that is light-years closer to reality than the old narrative,” Gilbert says.
The same would be true if Detroit had won the Amazon bid and people came to the city for those jobs, he points out.
Many who went to work at Amazon, or other west coast companies like Google or Facebook, did not grow up in that area. They followed the jobs and opportunities. Detroit can offer the same.
Plus, Gilbert says, Detroit and Southeast Michigan currently have an ample and rapidly growing talent pool.
“In other words, it’s simply untrue that there is a talent crisis or shortage of talent in our region,” he says, pointing out Detroit and Michigan are growing a lot of talent.
“There are approximately 52 million people and numerous outstanding educational institutions within a 5-hour drive of downtown Detroit. This has served as a huge reservoir of people and talent, almost as big as the Great Lakes.”
Gilbert does, however, point much work still needs to be done to improve our education and workforce development so everyone in our region has the skills he or she needs to take full advantage of these opportunities.
As for transportation, yup, that was an issue.
He says Amazon surveyed its employees and the results showed the ability to live and move seamlessly around a city with strong mass transportation was a critical priority. That did impact Amazon’s decision.
“We need to take investment in transit infrastructure very seriously. Companies like Amazon and their employee base require dynamic and reliable transit,” Gilbert says. “If we are determined to attract exciting opportunities to metropolitan Detroit, then it’s time to get in a room and figure it out.”
To read the full text of Gilbert’s letter please click here.