DETROIT. The signs are everywhere: “Opportunity Detroit.” They hang from light posts, billboards, and buses, paid for by the most powerful man in this city. He’s the catalyst for this city’s economic restoration, and some citizens are hailing him as the savior of Detroit
And no, he’s not the new mayor.
Dan Gilbert doesn’t need a political title; elected office could hardly augment his financial influence over Detroit. The founder and chairman of Rock Ventures, an umbrella entity that includes Quicken Loans and scores of other properties, Gilbert has consolidated power in the region in an astonishingly short time. First, he moved Quicken Loans’ headquarters from the suburbs to downtown in August 2010. In the three-and-a-half years since, Gilbert has established himself as Detroit’s de facto CEO. He now controls more than 40 downtown properties — covering nearly 8 million square feet of real estate — and his companies have shifted more than 12,000 employees into the city. To date, Gilbert’s total investment in Detroit nears $1.5 billion. (For comparison, the city’s annual budget for 2013 was $1.12 billion.)
More than just a CEO, Gilbert has taken on outsize roles as Detroit’s chief booster, developer, and now, security officer. His company squires out-of-town reporters and prospective businesses on downtown tours, selling specific points of progress and trying to frame Detroit as America’s smartest urban investment. He is recruiting new businesses (more than 100 so far) and is evangelical about the importance of creating spaces that draw foot traffic in downtown and midtown neighborhoods. And, in the absence of a functioning, solvent local government, Gilbert has taken it upon himself to confront safety concerns by installing a state-of-the-art surveillance system downtown to supplement an underfunded and undermanned Detroit Police Department. The ACLU says it disapproves of this given the potential privacy concerns but says it cannot prevent business owners from monitoring their own properties.