|By M.L. Elrick, Detroit Free Press|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
June 9, 2004 - Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's bid for a new $1-billion downtown convention center is all but dead.
After determining that the cost of a new, high-tech, million-square-foot facility outweighed the economic benefit, a task force of public officials and business leaders decided Tuesday to endorse expanding Cobo Center.
Kilpatrick, who hoped to rally Detroiters and suburbanites behind his call for a new convention center, said he accepted the Tourism Action Group's decision.
"So now we can focus the region on getting it done," Kilpatrick said Tuesday evening. "We need a victory... We've got to get this done."
Kilpatrick, backed chiefly by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, previously warned that Detroit would continue to lose convention business and could hamper the growth of the North American International Auto Show without a new building.
Richard Genthe, president of the auto dealers group, said expansion is a short-term fix, but it's better than nothing.
"We certainly need to get pragmatic and get pragmatic soon," he said Tuesday evening. "So if this is the best possible thing, we need to go for it."
Both the auto dealers and Kilpatrick became resigned to a less ambitious plan as regional support for a new convention center failed to materialize. In a January speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Kilpatrick had called on people in southeastern Michigan to put their divisive past behind them and work together for a new convention center.
But Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano said two months ago that expanding the current building was the only viable option. And Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who tentatively supported Kilpatrick's call to replace Cobo, had begun to question its feasibility.
Walt Watkins, Detroit's chief development officer and chairman of the Tourism Action Group, said expanding 43-year-old Cobo Center from about 700,000 square feet to as much as 900,000 could cost between $500 million and $600 million.
It is unclear where the money will come from or how Kilpatrick and local leaders will convince voters to support what is still an expensive project.
And the scaled-back plan could give critics another opportunity to cast Kilpatrick as a mayor whose grand dreams seldom come true.
Kilpatrick's attempt to bring the 2004 Democratic National Convention to Detroit failed. After announcing that he would demolish 5,000 abandoned buildings within his first 9 months in office, it now appears unlikely he will reach that total by the time his term expires in 2005.
The mayor's bid to take charge of the Detroit Public Schools, redevelop the Book-Cadillac hotel and convert the abandoned Michigan Central Depot into a new police headquarters are still on hold.
"With potential opposition in 2005 surfacing so early, folks are certainly going to draw a circle around this as a failure connected to many," Kamau Marable of the Detroit-based Urban Consulating Group said of the revamped convention center plan.
Referring to Detroit City Councilwoman Sharon McPhail and former Police Chief Benny Napoleon, who may team up to run for mayor, and former Deputy Mayor Freman Hendrix, Marable said: "Those folks are going to be out working the media and working the community and saying this is another promise unkept. Fair or not, it's politics."
Mayoral spokesman Howard Hughey said Kilpatrick has succeeded in launching redevelopment of the riverfront, revitalization of Woodward and Washington, and attracting major events such as college basketball's 2009 championship.
Kilpatrick has not given up on his schools plan, the Book-Cadillac or the new police headquarters, Hughey said.
"We're still just as dedicated to those ambitious goals for the future prosperity of the city and we will remain dedicated until we can see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Watkins said the tourism group liked Kilpatrick's call for a new facility, but expansion had "a lot of benefit for fewer dollars."
He said local political and business leaders would work on figuring out how to expand Cobo -- as well as how to pay for it -- over the next 60 days.
Although Kilpatrick's bigger proposal seems dead, some elements survive.
Watkins said his group still plans to ask suburbanites to help pay for the project. And he said they will get some control over the facility in return.
"All the discussions so far have been for a regional-type facility," he said. "I suspect that that's where the discussion will continue in the future."
Staff writer Cecil Angel contributed to this report.
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