When it comes to cities Las Vegas should emulate as it grows and evolves, Detroit might not take first billing on most residents’ lists.
After all, the Motor City made national headlines when the municipality filed for bankruptcy protection in July 2013. Urban decay didn’t help the situation. Several months before the bankruptcy filing, Detroit officials declared a “blight emergency,” given that one-third of the city’s 139 square miles was empty or unused and littered with thousands of vacant homes.
But amid the gloomy news, Detroit was slowly paving a comeback, according to key leaders who spoke Tuesday night in Las Vegas. The Downtown Vegas Alliance and city of Las Vegas hosted an event at the D Las Vegas that featured speakers from Detroit who are involved in community, business and transportation initiatives revitalizing the struggling Midwestern city.
The reason: Despite the age difference and distance between Las Vegas and Detroit, the cities have similar challenges, said Todd Kessler, chairman of the Downtown Vegas Alliance. The Great Recession battered both cities, which are trying to overcome reliance on single industries — automobiles and gaming — while transforming their downtown core.
Wealthy businessmen also have played pivotal roles in jumpstarting the downtown makeovers. In Detroit, billionaire Dan Gilbert moved his Quicken Loans company downtown and has been busy buying scores of real estate. Gilbert, whose robust business portfolio includes the Cleveland Cavaliers, has invested more than $1.5 billion into downtown Detroit.
Similarly, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh spurred much economic activity in downtown Las Vegas when he moved the company’s headquarters there three years ago. His Downtown Project, a $350 million investment that includes real estate, helped rejuvenate East Fremont Street with new bars, restaurants and retail.
But the transformations are far from over in both cities. The Las Vegas City Council is expected to approve a new master plan for downtown on June 15.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to make this happen,” Las Vegas Mayor Pro Tem Steve Ross said, referencing the chance to learn from Detroit leaders.
And so for 90 minutes in a downtown ballroom, city officials, business leaders and residents of downtown Las Vegas listened to their Detroit peers talk about how revitalization is gaining ground in the Rust Belt. Here are some takeaways from their commentary:
A clean, safe environment is crucial to spurring more activity downtown.
The Downtown Detroit Partnership aims to foster development that benefits businesses, visitors and residents in the downtown core. Two years ago, it helped property owners form a business improvement zone that provides for cleaning, safety and landscaping services downtown.
Removing graffiti, picking up trash and targeting crime hot spots improve the quality of life downtown, making it a more attractive place for businesses and people, said Gina Cavaliere, chief business growth officer of the Downtown Detroit Partnership.
Instill a sense of community pride among local residents.
Jeanette Pierce, a lifelong Detroit resident, founded an organization, the Detroit Experience Factory, that helps connect both tourists and locals with all the city has to offer through experiential tours. Tours dive into the city’s neighborhoods, restaurant scene and architectural gems, among other aspects of the culture.
Sixty-seven percent of the people who participate in the tours are from the Detroit area, Pierce said.
“We focus on them because they can use that information more,” she said.
The city of Detroit also created a checklist of the 300-some bars and restaurants located within its jurisdiction, including 160 in the central business district, Pierce said. The simple brochure encourages people to try new eateries or watering holes once they realize how many exist.
The bottom line: If people feel more connected to their city, they’ll be more likely to take advantage of all it has to offer or maybe even move downtown, she said.
Don’t be afraid to try something different.
Situated in the heart of downtown Detroit is Campus Martius Park, a two-square block that features, among other amenities, a sandy play area known as “the beach” in the summer and an ice-skating rink in the winter.
Elsewhere in Detroit, “The Z” parking garage boasts murals and 30,000 square feet of retail space, turning the spot into a destination as opposed to simply a place to leave your vehicle, said Matt Roling, director of business development for Rock Ventures LLC, the umbrella entity for Gilbert’s portfolio of companies.
These are examples of out-of-the-box thinking that have helped downtown Detroit foster a sense of community, he said.
“You’re all in it together,” Roling said. “The next time someone comes to you with a crazy idea about how to make the city better, try to say yes before no.”
Let projects be reflective of the community.
Two years ago, construction began on the M-1 Rail, a 3.3-mile circulating streetcar in downtown Detroit that came to fruition because of a large-scale public-private partnership.
The M-1 Rail, a nonprofit organization, formed in 2007 to spearhead the design and construction of the Q Line Detroit, which is expected to be operational next spring.
During the planning process, officials sought input from business and community advisory councils, said Sommer Woods, director of external relations for the transit organization. The feedback included specifics about everything from landscaping to fence design as well as who should construct the rail line.
Ultimately, 40 percent of the construction workers on the project resided in Detroit.