Motor City, Detroit, the former industrial powerhouse turned Rust Belt haven, has seen the devastating results of urban decline follow into the 21st century. The death of American Manufacturing has sucked the life out of a thriving metropolis that propelled it to heights in line with the mythology of American prosperity. The decline of this mega engineering industry has left the city with a yearning for future success and looking for new arenas of support. With dwindling tax revenues and poor regional unity, the city has faced tremendous obstacles in attracting funds for projects to build up the city’s infrastructure and create sustainable solutions to systemic unemployment, crime and–arguably the most devastating plague of the Rust Belt–the brain drain.
In spite of these tremors, Detroit is experiencing its renaissance thanks to the steadfast commitment of a community that refuses to see the city fail and instead imagines a rich and dynamic metropolis in its future. In developing plans for a future of prosperity, many Detroiters are looking to pro bono resources and cross-sector collaborations to bring new life to the shattered dream of Americana that haunts the city. One of the big pro bono players is Matt Cullen, CEO of Rock Ventures, an affiliate company of Quicken Loans, who has taken the lead on numerous projects to leverage dramatic change through public and private partnerships. Most recently, as the volunteer CEO of the M1 light rail project that aims to build the first light rail system up Detroit’s main thoroughfare, Woodward Avenue, Mr. Cullen has facilitated partnerships between the municipal and federal governments along with private companies and foundations to ensure that Detroit can develop into a competitive urban economy.
I had a chance to speak with Mr. Cullen a few weeks ago regarding his experience with pro bono service and his longstanding commitment to Detroit’s development.
So can you start off with giving us some background on the M1 Light rail project?
From a regional perspective, we in Detroit have never done a very good job on mass transit, and as a result have never been provided with any resources at the Federal level to try and do things in the transit field. As regional leaders, we thought that there might be the opportunity to change that approach and change the perspective that the Federal government has of us in regards to transit. So we championed the first segment of a light rail system that would be the foundation of a regional transit system in Detroit. We thought that the best way to really make our proposal different from others, was to fund the initial cost of 3.4 miles at $100 million from the private and philanthropic community without any governmental funding. The Kresge Foundation, which has been very generous to us here in the City of Detroit, committed $35 million, and from that we convinced a number of business leaders to put the money together to finance this.
It’s something we were all committed to and pretty passionate about. We wanted to make sure that we leveraged the project to the fullest. We wanted to make sure we were able to be matched, so we spent a lot of time with the FTA [Federal Transit Authority] and others to make sure that we would be considered in that way. So as a result, the bad news is the project is taking longer than we would like. The good news is that people including the FTA were so impressed with this structure and idea in the public private partnership that they pushed us to the top of the list, and we are currently in the process of doing an environmental impact statement. Instead of the three or four years that it would typically take, [the FTA] committed to do that within a year. I’m pretty excited for us.
Given your experience in public-private partnerships, what makes you, along with project Chair Roger Penske and Vice Chair Dan Gilbert, effective leaders for this project?
Well, the first thing that is very consistent with Taproot is that all of us are really desirous of doing the right thing for our community and helping the community become successful. We are absolutely of a mind that while it is a transit project, it is really an economic development project, and we think it can change the dynamics of the City of Detroit and change the attractiveness of the city to folks getting out of school and looking for a vibrant urban environment.
I think also the way that you need to be successful from a public-private perspective is you need to blend the best of both: you need the sense of urgency and the financial acumen of the private world, and you need the capacity and the outreach and inclusion as represented by the public side of the partnership.
What are your motivations for getting involved in this type of work in your city?
I would say I’m a bit of an urbanist in general. I headed up Real Estate and Economic Development for General Motors for a lot of years, and in that role, I came to see the impact that corporations could have, good and bad, during periods of investment and disinvestment, on their community. And it was clear to me that if that became a goal of the organization, then that could have a compelling impact on the community. It’s a win-win. You can do well and do good all at the same time.
Detroit is my home town and is a community that has its fair share of challenges from an economic development or disinvestment standpoint. Yet I [want] it to be a community that has a future. I have three young boys, and when they get out of college, I’d like them to have the opportunity, if they have the interest, to stay here because obviously from a personal perspective it’s gratifying. From a community perspective, I’m a big advocate that a strong urban core is critical to the success of a region and a state. I think it’s just a predicate for being successful in changing our city–changing the way it’s perceived and making it attractive for people to come in as a new economy and interact with each other and be entrepreneurial and create jobs and opportunity.
How do you serve as a leader to ring people in, for example, at General Motors or at Quicken. How do you bring your coworkers into the cause as well?
I think through the old expression, “Hips, not lips:” You have to walk the talk, and you have to lead by example. I think you have to demonstrate it is a personal commitment, and you’re going to act on it. When I was at General Motors I oversaw the move of 7,000 people down to the Renaissance Center, GM’s involvement in the RiverFront Conservancy, and $100 million investment into the downtown. We were a global automotive company, and we could have gone a lot of places, but we thought it was very important to reinvest in our hometown and to be part of the solution.
Same thing we’re doing right now with Quicken Loans: we announced that we were going to come downtown. The economic climate relative to commercial real estate didn’t make a lot of sense to build a new building like we initially set out to do, but we knew that we needed to act on what we were saying if we were going to be successful. So, Dan Gilbert, the Chairman of Quicken Loans, made the decision to move downtown. We’ve moved from the suburbs, and we brought about 1,700 people down here. We’re going to bring another 2,000 people into the city over the course of the next year.
A few years ago Dan Gilbert created a philanthropic entrepreneurial boot camp called Bizdom U where we teach people how to be entrepreneurs, and if they do start-ups here in Detroit, then we’ll fund them. We are really engaging the community in a broad way, both from a volunteerism standpoint and [through] financial commitment, and we reach out a make it visible to all the employees in our companies and get them excited.
You need to have people understand that it’s part of your core philosophy as a company. Dan has what we call “-isms,” which are cultural truisms that Quicken Loans is founded on. One is, “Money follows, it doesn’t lead.” Our point there is doing right by the community ultimately creates opportunity for you. So, it’s not a financial thing initially, but over time, if you improve on your surroundings in the community, it pays dividends as well.
Throughout your time giving back, what’s the most memorable project you’ve engaged in?
I was the founding chair of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. We had a beat-up old, industrial riverfront, this spectacular physical asset on the international border with Canada. It’s really a beautiful river, and it has a tremendous amount of activity on it with the freighters and sailboats and kayaks and everything else going by, and basically from the Detroit side, you couldn’t access any of that through the broken-up cement plants and parking lots. We had a model of what could be a world-class riverfront on the Canadian side in Windsor, where there’s public access and green space and jogging and so on. So in 2003, we put forward a vision to have that kind of Central Park-like waterfront here in Detroit. It was very daunting in scale. Bridge to bridge [Ambassador to Belle Isle], our vision was five-and-a-half miles of public access, with lake parks and ecosystems. Then again, very important from an economic development perspective: It wasn’t just to create green space; it was to catalyze development and investment in the community as well. It was a tough project because it involved private investment with philanthropy, the city, the county, the state, and the federal government. We embarked on the process as a very small group, and we kept expanding the group to bring in more people and more constituents to make sure that everyone had a seat at the table. Over those six or seven intervening years, we really have made great progress.
We also changed our approach through the process. We didn’t just want to build and create this space, but we wanted to endow it. We had a history in Detroit of making beautiful spaces and not taking care of them, and we wanted to make sure we weren’t going to build this space unless we endowed it at the same time so we could represent to the people that we could take care of it. It’s been an exciting project. We’ve been making great progress: we have about three and a half miles of it completed already, and we are endowing it as we go.
It’s really created a different environment in the City of Detroit. About five years ago, you would not see people with strollers and dogs walking around in the city, and people were nervous about being out at night. But the RiverFront has changed all of that. It’s an environment that’s very different for the city and allows people to come together in a very inclusive way and interact with each other in a safe, clean, and attractive environment.
With regards to the M1 light rail project, what sort of impact do you see five years from now?
I think like the riverfront, it will start changing people’s perception [of the City of Detroit]. I don’t think the importance of that can be overestimated. I think it’s really important that we demonstrate to ourselves and to the FTA in this instance and to others in the federal government that we in Detroit can work together, and we are going to be doing the things necessary to be successful as a community.
Secondly, if we look at the two investments, the riverfront and M1 Rail, those are the two main physical arteries of the City of Detroit–Woodward Avenue and the Detroit River–these spines that the city was created around 300 years ago. The idea of coming back together as a community and putting investments of a billion dollars or more into those two arteries will inform what happens to the city going forward because we’re a city of 140 square miles built for 2.5 million people, and we have only a third of that now. We need to reinvent ourselves, and these two major infrastructure investments really help in that regard because they become enablers for developments to take place, and they are the tougher, less sexy kind of developments that create further development opportunities.
I think they really help to inform the planning of the city going forward. They start to create an environment that’s attractive to folks. Talk to folks getting out of our great university system. They don’t want to live in [the suburbs]. They want to live in a big urban area, so they move to Chicago or New York or Boston. If we want to compete with those regions, we have to create an urban area that’s attractive. And if you ask those people what they want, they want great green space and they want an area where transit is available to them and they don’t need a car to go everywhere.
When you benchmark other urban areas, you see that each dollar of investment in transit generates $4-6 of economic development. So even if in our small first phase of 3.4 miles, at a cost of $125 million, if we get a five- or six-times payback, you’re talking over a billion dollars in development. On a lot of different levels that can make a real difference in our community.
We all saw this determination during the Super Bowl–the Chrysler ad where Eminem searched the streets of his hometown, following that distant sound of hope, leading him to the FOX Theatre whose sign read, “Keep Detroit Beautiful.” The stalwart advocates of Motor City are all in agreement with the key to the city’s recovery is bringing its own people into the fight to re-create a Detroit which will remain for generations a proud place to call home. The burgeoning pro bono movement, led in part by individuals like Matt Cullen, is just a step toward greater metropolitan unity and a stronger city.
Francesca Krihely is a Development Fellow at the Taproot Foundation.