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Economy & Business

Detroit Billionaire Goes On Real Estate Buying Binge


While the city of Detroit seeks bankruptcy protection, a local billionaire businessman is on a real estate buying binge. Since 2011, Dan Gilbert has bought more than 40 downtown buildings, and seems to be collecting more each week.

Gilbert says yes, he plans to make a profit. But he adds that he also wants to help his battered hometown turn things around. Sarah Hulett, of Michigan Radio, reports.

SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: Dan Gilbert owns two casinos; the Cleveland Cavaliers; and the online mortgage company Quicken Loans, which he relocated from suburban Detroit to downtown in 2010. Since then, he's been on a tear.


HULETT: If you stand in Campus Martius Park - that's right in the heart of downtown - you can't look in any direction without seeing a building owned by Gilbert.

MATT CULLEN: Well, you can see a lot of them from here.

HULETT: Matt Cullen is the president of Rock Ventures. That's the name for Gilbert's business empire that now includes 80 companies. Gilbert's traveling, so Cullen's speaking on his behalf.

CULLEN: We own the First National building, the Chase building, 1001 - the brown building over there. Behind this building is the Dime Building. And then...

HULETT: The current tally: 8 million square feet of real estate, bought for a little more than a billion dollars. Cullen's boss likes to say Detroit was having a sale on skyscrapers, many of which were vacant or near-vacant. Now, they're filling up. Cullen says Rock Ventures companies employ about 12,000 workers in downtown Detroit.

CULLEN: And then we've been able to recruit nearly 100 companies - including Twitter and Google and Amazon and a number of others - to come down here and join us, so there's tremendous momentum and as a result, many of these buildings are filling up very quickly.


HULETT: What used to be a stodgy downtown where bankers and lawyers worked, is now a sort of playground for 20- and 30-somethings. Rock music comes out of speakers along the sidewalks. Cartoonish, oversized chairs sit in front of buildings, along with giant chess games. And for a lot of Detroiters - like Isher Poindexter, David Crumbie and Glenda Henderson - this is great.

ISHER POINDEXTER: The building that I work in - of course, Mr. Gilbert owns it, and I have noticed a big difference. It's cleaner. I've never seen the building look so nice.

DAVID CRUMBIE: When a lot of investors left the city, Dan Gilbert is one of the ones who took a chance with the city of Detroit, and I hope he stays.

GLENDA HENDERSON: When there's a rebirth, it starts downtown. And I think it'll go into the neighborhoods, eventually.

HULETT: Of course, not everyone is convinced of that. There are plenty of Detroiters out in the neighborhoods who feel like they're being left out of the much-hyped revitalization downtown. And even with the downtown development, there are a handful of critics - like Mark Binelli.

MARK BINELLI: It's a lot of power in one man's hands.

HULETT: Binelli is the author of "Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis."

BINELLI: If you're going to say, well, the city's broke so we'll just let a handful of rich guys own and fix downtown, that's an oligarchy. That's not a democracy.

MARY KRAMER: I have heard comments from people saying things like, gee, should anybody be allowed to own that much?

HULETT: That's Mary Kramer. She's the publisher of Crain's Detroit Business.

KRAMER: And it's sort of that kind of comment that is I think coming from someone who hasn't invested much, hasn't risked much of their own capital. Should you penalize a guy who did?

HULETT: Absolutely not, says Robin Boyle. He teaches urban planning at Wayne State University, in Detroit. Boyle says Gilbert's stated goals - to enliven downtown and bring in new businesses - are laudable ones. But, he adds, there are a lot of important questions to get settled as well; like what, exactly, should downtown look like?

ROBIN BOYLE: How do Gilbert's ideas mesh with the ideas of city government, of other businesses? That's the question that we're still trying to find something about.

HULETT: But Dan Gilbert's broader plan may already be working. At a recent tax auction, he lost out on two buildings after he was outbid by developers from China and Canada. Gilbert says he's happy for the competition because it shows he's not the only investor bullish on Detroit's future.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.