Dan Gilbert’s proposal to build a new soccer stadium downtown must take into local voices that feel ownership of his project.
Boy, did I get an earful this week when I asked on Twitter whether hardcore fans of the Detroit City FC soccer club would support a Dan Gilbert/Tom Gores Major League Soccer team.
Many of the responses were not even printable in a family newspaper. More about that in a moment.
The question of support for a Gilbert/Gores MLS franchise looms larger today, now that Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said he’s leaning toward accepting Gilbert’s offer to take over the site of the stalled Wayne County Jail project.
Gilbert and Gores hope to build a soccer stadium on that downtown site and attract one of the MLS expansion franchises to be awarded later this year. In the meantime, Gilbert would build the county a new criminal justice campus in Midtown.
But, as my Twitter feed indicated, we shouldn’t expect the growing number of soccer fans in Detroit to automatically support a new team or the stadium project. Fans of Detroit City FC club, a semi-professional club playing games before boisterous crowds at Keyworth Stadium stadium in Hamtramck, let me know it’s their club or nothing.
Abe Dorow, also known as Mustachio, center right, holds a smoke bomb at the 85th minute of the friendly game between Detroit City FC and Venezia FC (Italy) at Keyworth Stadium, Tuesday, July 18, 2017 in Hamtramck. (Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)
Among those dozens of replies on Twitter to whether DCFC fans would support a Gilbert/Gores franchise: “Not a chance.” “No. End of story.” “The answer is a clear NOOOOOOOO.” “Absolutely not. Detroit City FC or I don’t care.”
And there were plenty of variations on “It’s DCFC or it’s (bleep).”
That’s hardly a scientific poll. But it does point out that projects like the Gilbert/Gores plan for a soccer stadium downtown are never generic one-size-fits-all developments. Rather, they are unique projects that must accommodate a host of specific market likes and dislikes.
A soccer stadium — or a new hotel, restaurant, apartment complex, or waterfront park — may elicit totally difference responses in different cities depending on the market. Local conditions, including costs, the needs of local residents, the support of the business community, the level of competition, all play a part in determining success or failure.
Businessman Gilbert recently found that out, to his cost, when his Bedrock real estate firm installed a large marketing screen on one of its downtown buildings celebrating Detroit — but with a photo that showed all white people.
As Gilbert immediately admitted in his public apology, it ranked among the least sensitive marketing campaigns in recent memory. It ignored the more than 80% of Detroit residents who are people of color. And it played into the notion that Detroit’s recovery is all about attracting young white folks downtown while ignoring the rest of the city.
To his credit, Gilbert pulled the image immediately and promised to do better in the future.
Such a marketing image may have worked in, say, San Francisco or Manhattan or even in many parts of suburban Detroit. But it flopped badly in the heart of the city.
Or to cite another local example: The planned Gordie Howe International Bridge isn’t being built just anywhere. It’s going to land in Detroit’s Delray district in southwest Detroit. The anguished pleas of residents there that they not be steamrolled by the project resulted in a significant community benefits agreement announced recently by Mayor Mike Duggan.
Without that community benefits agreement in place, the bridge project would have drawn considerable political fire the closer it got to the start of construction.
DCFC fans’ denials to the contrary, I suspect that plenty of Detroiters will support a Gilbert/Gores team if and when Major League Soccer grants a franchise. As one of the more positive responses to my Twitter question said, “Some people want to see the highest level of play on the field, even if the atmosphere is not like a DCFC game.”
And another said, “Ask youth soccer players, who aspire to play pro, or ethnic groups that built DET’s strong soccer community well before DCFC fans existed.”
So, yes, Detroit may see major league soccer in its near-term future. But the Gilbert/Gores team, and city officials who support their effort, better not expect that the gates will open and the waters part just because another big new project is in the offering.
They’ll need to understand and cater to local tastes, bearing in mind the many complexities of the local market, and giving ear to the many residents who will feel a measure of ownership in a project being built in the heart of their city.
This is Detroit. It’s a unique market. And developers of every stripe would do well to remember that.
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.
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