The Next Cobo Center

The city should take a conservative approach in expanding Cobo Center to maximize its investment and keep the North American International Auto Show

One of the most underutilized areas of Cobo Center is the Riverfront Ballroom. Sure, it offers great views of the Detroit River and the Windsor skyline, but the windows are nearly always covered for conferences, executive speeches, and model unveilings during the North American International Auto Show.

Now that Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. has assigned the future expansion of Cobo Center to George W. Jackson Jr., president and CEO of Detroit Economic Growth Corp., look for city officials to embark on a conservative plan to improve and expand the Riverfront Ballroom over more ambitious efforts.

The reason: While the auto show is currently pressed for space, there’s no guarantee global automakers will continue a recent trend of introducing dozens of new models every year. Consider that rising fuel prices and the sluggish economy have slowed down development plans for large trucks and SUVs, as well as niche vehicles like sports cars, luxury coupes, and convertibles. And the new wave of smaller cars on the horizon doesn’t require as much floor space.

While past expansion plans have promoted efforts that top $1 billion and include the renovation of either neighboring Cobo Arena or Joe Louis Arena, it would make more economic sense to allow private investors to improve those interior spaces. Currently, the arena leases are held by Ilitch Holdings Inc. and are set to expire next year. The company, owned by Mike and Marian Ilitch, has the option to renew either lease for another 30 years. And it’s up to them, or a new lessee, to improve the space.

In other words, it makes no economic sense to take precious public dollars to improve either leased facility when the onus is on the private sector to do so at their discretion. And if the city does a great job of improving the Riverfront Ballroom into a fourth exhibit hall, the added competition would help spur any neighboring renovation.

Also, don’t look for Cockrel or Jackson to turn the Cobo expansion effort into a three-ring circus. Too often in the past, an expansion plan would be floated in the press with various strings attached that would rile the public or private sector — or both. The result would be more arguments in the media at the expense of face-to-face meetings to resolve the pressing issues.

As for the argument that a massive expansion would entice major conferences to choose Detroit over other cities, it doesn’t hold water. Certainly our cold weather isn’t a major selling point for five months of the year. And while it may be efficient to have everyone in a certain industry under the same roof, many companies and organizations have curtailed such expenditures because of rising fuel costs and the continued improvement of teleconferencing. Plus with all the new hotel space and meeting rooms added in downtown Detroit in recent years by the casinos and private investors, there’s plenty of overflow capacity.

The best thing city officials can do is to provide best-in-class space that meets the demands of exhibition planners the world over. Anything less, as we often hear, would be uncivilized.

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