Inside Detroit’s Downtown Renaissance

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Cobo Center, Detroit

The American Society for Association Executives (ASAE) rolled into Detroit last month to find a city in the midst of a restoration that is worthy of its storied 314-year history of innovation. The conference took place at the $279 million-enhanced Cobo Center, beautifully situated on the Detroit River, with a wide selection of hotels hosting the ASAE’s 5,000 attendees. In contrast to much of the hype that has surrounded Detroit since the 2008 recession, we found Greater Downtown Detroit teeming with wonderful infrastructure, safe and explorable neighborhoods and an abundance of activities.

“Innovation started in Detroit,” Bill Bohde, the Detroit CVB’s senior VP of sales and marketing, adds. “With great minds a long time ago as a manufacturing hub for creativity. Today, it is the cornerstone of our vision for the city.”

Detroit’s innovative edge spans more than a century—from architectural gems like the Fisher Building and Cadillac Place to the Eastern Market, the oldest continuously operating public market in the US (drawing up to 40,000 visitors on any given Saturday). Wayne State University’s new Multidisciplinary Biomedical Research Building is one of the latest innovations to hit Midtown, one of Detroit’s fastest developing neighborhoods. The new Henry Ford Innovation Institute is inspiring the medical groups who meet there.

“There are so many great places in downtown Detroit for creative group events that there were 73 different events going on during ASAE in one night,” Bohde recaps, “all within a 10- to 12-minute cab ride of each other.”

Venues that Inspire

ASAE’s opening event was held at the Henry Ford Museum—the second most visited museum in the country (behind the Smithsonian)—amongst 12-acres worth of American History. Delegates sipped cocktails while marveling at artifacts such as the Kennedy Lincoln Continental, Rosa Parks bus and rocking chair where President Lincoln sat during his assassination.

With more theatre seats than any other US city except New York, delegates naturally gathered at the historic Fox Theatre on another evening, where Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand have performed. For this private event, Lionel Richie was on stage.

A City with Purpose

A street car linking downtown neighborhoods and attractions, restoration of the iconic downtown train station, a 45-block development of mixed-use space including an 18,000-seat Red Wings hockey arena, and the Joe Louis Arena, next to the Cobo Center, are all currently in the works for 2016. The Detroit waterfront transformation project is nearly complete. A 5-mile RiverWalk offers plenty of green spaces to meet, and groups are already active in the project’s new Outdoor Adventure Center.

The restoration and repurposing of historic buildings is also a highlight to the area. Three new boutique hotels are taking shape in some of these in downtown Detroit between 2016 and 2017; likewise, 78 buildings have been purchased by entrepreneur Dan Gilbert, with new tech companies and other startups moving in. The area saw 77 new restaurants open over the past two years—from rooftop dining at the HopCat Brewery, located in a historic building with 130 craft beer taps, to the retractable roof and creative indoor spaces at the Townhouse Restaurant.

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Laurel Herman is publisher/editorial director of Prevue. She has spent the last 39 years roaming the globe with the focused belief that sharing stories of different cultures and experiences is an integral way to foster world peace. It all started in 1972 while she was finishing her college education in London, when she had the opportunity to backpack throughout Europe. Laurel continued her love affair with travel by expanding Recommend Magazine to a worldwide destination brand when she became its publisher/editorial director in 1985. She then launched the Prevue brand in 2009, which has taken her to destinations like Egypt, India, Australia, France, Barcelona, Thailand, Italy and Israel, among others.