It’s no secret that the last few decades have been rough ones for the city of Detroit. The rest of the nation has watched as economic hardships have rocked the Motor City, bringing the city to its knees. Although there remains a lot of work to do to bring the city back to the levels of prosperity it enjoyed in much of the 20th century, there are areas where positive change can be seen.
One of the most prominent of those bright spots has been the city’s Cobo Center, Detroit’s 2.4-million-square-foot convention and events center. After a long period of mismanagement and dwindling resources, Cobo Center is undergoing a significant transformation and revitalization under the management of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority (DRCFA).
Built in 1960 and originally known as Cobo Hall, the facility is the home of the North American International Auto Show and Detroit Autorama. Cobo Center was one of the nation’s earliest large-scale convention centers, and has hosted events ranging from concerts to political rallies to sporting events. Although the facility had been expanded and upgraded over the years, DRCFA CEO and CFO Patrick Bero says the most recent recession and the city’s depleted resources meant that Cobo Center was having a hard time competing with other facilities for large-scale events. Thanks to a lack of support from the city and poor management, the number of large-scale events hosted by Cobo Center dropped from about 20 in 1988 to just two in 2008. “Our customers were voting with their feet,” Bero says.
The last straw came in 2008, when the North American International Auto Show announced it would no longer hold the event in Cobo Center unless major renovations were made. Bero says the loss of the auto show would have been more than a blow to Cobo Center, but also a major economic blow to a city that was already feeling the pinch of the recession more than most others. “It’s the equivalent of a Super Bowl every single year here in Detroit,” he says. “That shock to the system really is what caused the state and the entire region to come together.”
Before 2008, Cobo Center was managed and funded by the city, but Bero says the corruption and mismanagement that plagued Detroit’s government made it impossible for the city to put together the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to modernize Cobo Center. With the Michigan legislature and surrounding suburban communities unwilling to place their trust in the city, the state took the then-controversial step of establishing the DRCFA.
The DRCFA is an independent governing body that consists of five members: a representative from the Detroit mayor’s office, a representative from the state of Michigan and three representatives from the surrounding counties. Bero says all votes have to be unanimous, and although there has been a lot of political infighting between Detroit and the surrounding suburbs in recent years, the DRCFA has been able to facilitate a smooth process for the renovation and upgrade at Cobo Center.
At the time the DRCFA board took possession of Cobo Center in 2009, it had its work cut out for it. It was determined that the facility needed approximately $3.25 million in emergency repairs before the 2010 North American International Auto Show, and there were only about three-and-a-half months to complete those repairs prior to the show. However, the new leadership from the DRCFA was able to assess the facility’s emergency needs and oversaw an initial renovation that ended up being completed on time and on budget.
“That was the first sign that things were going to be changing here at Cobo Center,” Bero says.
Once the repairs were made to the building, the DRCFA set its sights on improving Cobo Center to make it more attractive to other events. Rather than simply copying what other facilities had done over the years, Bero says the board of directors had the foresight to hire a consultant to find out what clients and potential clients wanted to see in Cobo Center. “The sign of truly successful and great people is that they are confident enough in their own abilities that they are willing to say they don’t know what they don’t know,” he says.
An $800 million proposal to raze the existing Cobo Center and start over from scratch with a facility twice the size was tabled by the legislature as being too expensive, but that turned out to be the wrong approach anyway. The DRCFA’s consultant found that rather than looking for a larger facility, customers said they wanted space that was more flexible and with more competitive pricing structures.
With feedback in hand, the DRCFA implemented a $279 million renovation program starting in 2011 and completed in 2015. The newly refurbished Cobo Center is now a more accessible and efficient facility, according to Bero, with multiple new entrances, increased parking and improved traffic flow. The facility’s main concourse has been opened up to improve traffic through the complex, and a new three-story atrium provides a central focal point for the entire facility by connecting the existing concourse to the convention hall on the lower level.
Cobo Center’s existing meeting and conference areas have been renovated to create meeting spaces that are more flexible, with expanded information technology capabilities that meet and exceed the digital requirements of today’s events. The adjacent Cobo Arena has found new purpose within the facility, having been converted from a sports and entertainment venue into a premier banquet and meeting space featuring a lift stage and panoramic views of downtown Detroit and the Detroit River.
“As a result of the renovations and new professional management, the market has responded in a dramatic fashion, and our business is better than it has been in 20 years,” Bero says, adding that Cobo Center is anticipating its third-straight summer of record-breaking attendance in 2016. mt