Detroit Lions’ resurgence puts sporting spin on city’s economic revival

Blazing electronic signs along the highway that connects downtown Detroit to its more prosperous western suburbs announce an unfamiliar cause for optimism in a city that a decade ago was so broke that it could not even pay for street lights.

“Two more,” the signs exhort in blue and white, referring to the number of games that American football’s Detroit Lions needed to win to claim this year’s Super Bowl.

Their dreams were cut short on Sunday night by the San Francisco 49ers, who beat them 34-31. But the fact that they made it this far reflects a resurgence for the Lions and the Midwestern metropolis, where mayor Mike Duggan hopes to draw national attention to a brighter economic vision than the blighted wasteland that Americans saw at the time of the city’s bankruptcy in 2013.

The Lions have not advanced this far in the US National Football League since the end of the cold war. They have never appeared in, let alone won, a Super Bowl, and their last championship came in 1957, when the chrome-finned Ford Skyliner was America’s bestselling car and Detroit’s population was still close to its 1.9mn peak.

“Year after year, you get your hopes up at the beginning of the season,” said start-up founder Greg Schwartz, who grew up outside the city in the 1990s and travelled with his father to watch games at the Silverdome stadium in the northern suburb of Pontiac.

The losses always stung. But last year, he said, “you started to see something different. Games that we’d typically find a way to lose, we were starting to win”.

The fire hydrant is rusty and the houses are boarded up, the grass is overgrown
Water leaks from a fire hydrant in front of two vacant houses in a once vibrant neighbourhood in Detroit © Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Many in Detroit are daring to hope that, a decade on from the city’s divisive fiscal crisis, the Lions’ strong performance will signify a new dawn in what is now a city of about 600,000 people.

Detroit’s city government went to court in 2013 to restructure its $18bn in debt, pension promises and other financial obligations. The biggest municipal bankruptcy in US history touched off a bitter fight between retired public servants and the Wall Street institutions that had bought the bonds, putting both groups into conflict with the city’s art museum, which resisted selling treasures that had been valued at more than $4bn.

With some of the debt now cancelled, Detroit is trying to curb the cycle of industrial decline and suburban flight that sapped its tax revenues and brought its government to ruin.

Both the economic revival that civic leaders are trying to engineer and the sporting renaissance that has lifted football fans’ spirits show how big business — and some of Detroit’s wealthiest citizens — have assumed a leading role in efforts to lift the city’s fortunes.

The Lions were bought in 1963 by William Clay Ford, the grandson of the famed industrialist. Fans trace the team’s recent success to decisions made by his daughter Sheila Ford Hamp, who has chaired the team since 2020. (Her mother is the heiress to the Firestone tyre fortune.)

Ford Hamp hired former NFL tight end Dan Campbell as coach in 2021, heralding a new, assertive physicality at a team that had been looked upon with pity for years.

People sit at tables. A woman in the foreground plays on her smartphone
A converted church in Detroit is now a popular restaurant © Patti Waldmeir/FT

“This city’s been down, and it found a way to get up,” Campbell growled at a press conference to announce his appointment. “We’re going to kick you in the teeth, all right? And when you punch us back we’re going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we’re going to get up, and on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.”

Duggan’s rhetoric is more muted, but his efforts to enlist private sector partners in Detroit’s transformation are no less ambitious. “Those images of abandoned buildings and a bankrupt city is the last impression we made,” he said. But since then, “the city of Detroit has been strongly coming back”.

In the district known as New Center, for example, an expanded hospital and medical research complex is set to rise as part of a $3bn real estate development project backed by Tom Gores, the private equity investor who owns the Detroit Pistons.

Todd Bowles, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, left, with Dan Campbell, head coach of the Detroit Lions, right, following the NFC Divisional Playoff game at Ford Field on January 21 in Detroit
Todd Bowles, head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, left, with Dan Campbell, head coach of the Detroit Lions, right, following the NFC divisional playoff game at Ford Field on January 21 in Detroit © Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Gores relocated the basketball franchise from the northern suburb of Auburn Hills in 2017. Its new home, Little Caesars Arena, stands in a spruced-up downtown beside the Lions’ Ford Field, itself built to accommodate the football team’s relocation from Pontiac a decade earlier.

The Ilitch family, owners of the Little Caesars Pizza chain, are behind a proposal to build retail, housing and office developments adjoining the sports venues, where previous development efforts have stalled.

But no one has made a bigger effort to fill Detroit’s economic vacuum than Dan Gilbert, who moved his Rocket Mortgage empire from the suburbs in 2010 and set up a real estate company, Bedrock, to nurture — and, eventually, profit from — new life in the city centre.

Walk along Woodward Avenue, a downtown street that has received an outsized share of those investment dollars, and “you’ll start thinking maybe you could be in 1940s Detroit, in a positive way”, said Kofi Bonner, the architect and city planner who has led Bedrock since 2020.

Mike Duggan in front of a screen showing new housing
Detroit mayor Mike Duggan has sought to enlist private sector partners in the city’s transformation © Robin Buckson/Detroit News/AP

A short distance away, freelancers balance coffee cups beside laptops at the cavernous Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters. In the late afternoon, workers trickle out of the Minoru Yamasaki-designed office tower that was a model for New York’s original World Trade Center, providing a smattering of custom for nearby bars.

Population in this downtown area was increasing, said Bonner, who noted that most of the new arrivals were working-age adults, the “critical demographic” that brought most employment and spending. “It’s a spine,” he said, “and the goal of urban redevelopment is that the spine creates the backbone for everything else.”

Beyond the central district on which real estate developers have focused, the city government is knocking down derelict buildings, paying for new amenities, and trying to stimulate enterprise through partnerships with companies, including JPMorgan Chase. The bank said it had committed more than $200mn to the city over the past 10 years.

Stellantis began building a new Jeep factory in Detroit in 2019, its first in nearly 30 years. To staff it, the company struck an unusual collaboration with the city, which screened more than 30,000 residents for jobs at the plant in an effort to capture as many employment opportunities as possible for locals; at the last count, the company had hired about one in four of the city’s referrals.

The city’s unemployment rate remains well above the national average. Still, Detroit is no longer the byword for economic deprivation and urban decay that it was a decade ago, when Schwartz was hiring the first employees for StockX, a marketplace for collectibles that he set up in Detroit with backing from Gilbert.

“When we would try to recruit people early on in Detroit, we’d talk to somebody in California and they would just laugh,” said Schwartz.

As valuable as the direct impacts of the city’s regeneration programme, are the less tangible effects that positive news can have on a city’s psyche, Schwartz added.

“You start seeing not just [Gilbert], but Ford and JPMorgan Chase starting to invest in the neighbourhoods,” he said. “They completely flipped the script.”

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