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Regional authority should run new Cobo, mayor says

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CONVENTION CENTER: Regional authority should run new Cobo, mayor says

January 10, 2004

BY M.L. ELRICK

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's call for a regional authority to oversee a proposed billion-dollar convention center in Detroit may win over suburbanites, but could alienate some Detroiters.

"We have determined the funding and operation of the convention center must be governed by an authority -- not a city," Kilpatrick told 1,000 state, local and business leaders Friday during an Economic Club of Detroit luncheon at Cobo Hall.

"This is the structure of most successful centers in America," he added. "And the fact is, substantial city, regional and state cooperation will be necessary to get the deal done."

The mayor did not say how he expected to pay for the 1million-square-foot building, which would replace 43-year-old Cobo Hall, or where the new building would be located. Many of those details are being worked out and may become clearer next month after city officials visit Denver to study how leaders there structured a deal to double their convention center's size and build a 1,100-room hotel.

Kilpatrick said he wants the project completed by 2009 to ensure that the city can continue hosting the nation's premier auto show and lure more conventions to Detroit.

But giving suburbanites some say in how a glitzy new Detroit convention center is run could anger city activists and officeholders who several years ago fought relinquishing some control over the Detroit Institute of Arts. More recently, City Council members and grassroots activists have opposed plans to give suburban customers oversight of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which serves most of southeastern Michigan.

In each instance, critics said Detroit's sovereignty was under assault.

Winning over suburbanites won't be easy, either, as the mayor acknowledged in his speech.

"Here in Michigan we are addicted to provincial politics and to driving a wedge between the city and the surrounding counties," Kilpatrick said. "Over the past 50 years we have become consumed by negativity that has led to eternal stagnation in regional cooperation. We have become masters at pitting neighbors against neighbors."

Kilpatrick's plan is the latest in a series of major initiatives the mayor has announced since taking office two years ago. The outcome for a number of them is uncertain, including his plan to oversee the Detroit Public Schools and convert the abandoned Michigan Central Depot into a new police headquarters.

The mayor has so far failed to convince Detroit lawmakers to back his schools plan and a renovation of the Book-Cadillac Hotel has been halted while its owners reconsider the project's feasibility.

Plans for permanent casinos and adjoining hotels also are awaiting City Council approval or are stuck in the courts.

While those projects may yet be completed, the mayor was unsuccessful in his 2002 bid to demolish the unprecedented goal of 5,000 abandoned buildings. And the Kilpatrick-led bid in 2003 to bring the Democratic National Convention to Detroit this summer failed, in part, because the mayor was unable to convince corporate leaders to commit the millions needed to guarantee the financial success of the event.

This time, Kilpatrick also will have to win over his fellow politicians. Early reviews are mixed.

Nancy White, chairwoman of the Macomb County Commission, said Friday she will have to be convinced her county can benefit economically from a new convention center. She said Kilpatrick has met with her, but she needs much more information before signing on.

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano said Friday he is concerned that he didn't know about the mayor's interest in the Denver plan until Kilpatrick gave his speech.

"The prism has to change," Ficano said. "This is not a conference center that Detroit comes up with a plan, then everyone buys in. This has got to be a leadership plan where everyone buys in and says, "How to do this together?' "

But Kilpatrick has early support from Oakland County, long perceived as a hotbed of anti-Detroit sentiment.

"I'm trying to be as reasonable and supportive as possible," said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. "I do not want Oakland County to be the stumbling block."

Patterson, who did not attend the speech because of a prior commitment, said Friday the mayor has done a good job including Oakland County officials in preliminary planning. He warned, though, that it will take more than a seat at the planning table to win Oakland County over.

"The last thing the mayor wants to do is design the whole program and pick up the phone and say, 'we expect you to pay a share,' " Patterson said.

Even if Kilpatrick persuades elected officials, the voters may be another matter.

Macomb County is famous for its frugality. And twice since 2000, supporters of a modest arts, culture and recreation tax -- including Patterson -- failed to convince enough voters in Oakland and Wayne counties to approve it.

Even Detroiters, who typically support bond proposals, rejected one in April to raise $55 million -- nearly half of which would have helped expand Cobo Hall.

Contact M.L. ELRICK at 313-223-3327 or [email protected] Staff writers John Gallagher and Frank Provenzano contributed to this report.

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