Dan Gilbert quickens Detroit revival: 2,000 more Quicken jobs moving downtown soon

Posted on September 21, 2011

In about two weeks, Quicken Loans will start moving another 2,000 employees to Detroit from the suburbs, nudging downtown closer to what Quicken founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert calls the tipping point for revitalization.

Gilbert told the Free Press editorial board Monday that most of those workers will move into the Chase Tower, a longtime bank headquarters on Woodward on Campus Martius Park that he bought this year.

Others will move into the First National Building, a 1922 skyscraper across Woodward from the Chase Tower that Gilbert also acquired this year.

The moves will bring Quicken’s downtown work force to nearly 4,000. Combined with 3,000 new Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan workers moving downtown, as well as more from DTE Energy and other employers, the moves promise to shake up and enliven the long-depressed downtown scene.

“So 2,000 more people, that’s a small city, right?” Gilbert said during the meeting at his offices. “I can’t wait to look out the window in November, December, next spring, and see what happens around this area.”

Moving workers downtown is only part of the dramatic change that Gilbert foresees for downtown. He’s also working to attract retailers to downtown’s long-vacant storefronts.

“Retail for us is huge,” Gilbert said. “That’s the next big area for us, to really focus on having that very cool, walkable urban retail as part of this.”

Quicken chief Dan Gilbert ‘probably not done’ buying in downtown Detroit

Even with several buildings already in his portfolio, Quicken Loans founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert said Monday that he’s not done shopping for downtown real estate.

“We’re opportunistic. There are always things in play,” Gilbert told the Free Press editorial board during a wide-ranging 90-minute meeting at his headquarters in the Compuware building downtown.

“We’re always in discussions,” he added. “I would say we’re probably not done.”

Nor is Gilbert satisfied with the state of the four buildings that he has bought downtown. He and his top aides want all four — the Chase Tower and the First National, Dime and Madison Theatre buildings — to get dramatic makeovers, with new first-floor retail and modern signage.

“This whole idea of modernizing a lot of things down here, we definitely are looking at that,” said Matt Cullen, president of Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, Gilbert’s venture toinvest downtown. “We want to have that kind of energy down here.”

Gilbert said he’s buying so much real estate to have space available for new entrepreneurial firms that he hopes will follow his move to downtown. And if his investment in downtown real estate — which Cullen has said eventually will top $100 million — pays off handsomely someday, that’s good, too.

“There’s no conflict in doing good and doing well,” Gilbert said.

As he often does, Gilbert showed Free Press editors a slide of the Time magazine cover on Detroit that depicted an abandoned industrial landscape with the headline “The Tragedy of Detroit.” He made it clear Monday that his goal is nothing less than a total turnaround of that Rust Belt image.

“For those who want to profit, for those who want to live, for those who want to play, for those who want to go to school here, for those who want to start companies, it’s THE city in the Midwest, and maybe in the country,” he said in outlining his vision for the city. “And that’s where you want to be. It’s just a complete turnaround from what the reputation was.”

Certainly, more Quicken-led changes are coming soon. Quicken and its related companies are about to start moving another 2,000 employees from the suburbs to the Chase Tower and First National Building in about two weeks, Gilbert said. Meanwhile, the Madison Theatre Building, now undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation, will open as an entrepreneurial center in October or November.

“We’re looking at it as ground zero of entrepreneurship here in Detroit,” said Josh Linkner, a Gilbert partner and managing partner of Detroit Venture Partners, a fund through which Gilbert and other partners invest in digital start-up companies in Detroit.

“As we fund portfolio companies, we’ll put them right in there with us so we can be very hands-on and provide a lot of support and guidance,” Linkner said.

The synergy that comes from many entrepreneurs working in the same spot is key, Gilbert and his team said.

“If Josh is going to grow his businesses, it’s not going to happen in Livonia or Grosse Pointe or someplace else, it’s going to happen down here,” Cullen said.

Quicken moved its first 1,700 employees downtown from the suburbs in August 2010. In just 13 months, downtown has gotten livelier, Gilbert said.

“Even after we moved in, I used to stare out these windows during the day and look down at Campus Martius and still be surprised at how little foot traffic I saw,” he said. “But I can tell you over time and over the spring and summer, that’s just completely changed. It’s night and day between when we got here and now.”

Quicken has worked with Somerset Collection retailers to open City Loft, a pop-up retail site where merchants from the Troy mall operate a joint location on Woodward Avenue one weekend per month. The number of retailers involved in City Loft is growing rapidly for future weekends, Gilbert and his team said.

On another front, Cullen predicted that the planned light-rail line along Woodward Avenue would finally break ground in late 2012. Gilbert is one of the private investors in M-1 Light Rail, a 3.2-mile trolley line planned to run from Jefferson Avenue to New Center. That plan has been incorporated into the city’s larger plans for a rapid-transit system running downtown from 8 Mile.

Many details remain to be worked out, but Cullen and Gilbert both expressed confidence that the line would be built.

Quicken also is one of five major employers offering incentives for employees to live downtown.