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Movin' On Up...to Detroit

So much GREAT news about and around Detroit today:

--Non-profit healthcare corporation Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan made it official and said it would move 3,000 employees from Southfield to the Ren Cen downtown in 2011. (More from Blue Cross CEO Dan Loepp in a minute.)
--Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert talked about his commitment to Detroit in The Detroit News; its move downtown starts Aug. 16.
--The Kresge Foundation via Rip Rapson told Detroit News columnist Laura Berman how much hope he has for Detroit and Mayor Bing.
--The city of Pontiac (in neighboring Oakland County) told the News about its “free rent for a year” project to revitalize its downtown. Detroit, take a memo. Do this immediately!

I got a chance to download with Loepp just after the morning's big announcement. He is realistic; he said his company's move isn't the silver bullet that will magically turn Detroit around. But it is a major move, bringing lots more warm bodies to the city and showing the business community's faith in the D.

But could it be a tipping point is in the works? Are we looking at critical mass?

Loepp admits he's not sure. But he feels “the idea of what we're doing will have significant positive impact,” he said.

“This was a prudent business decision – I feel strongly that a single campus will be great for our culture,” Loepp said, noting how much the healthcare industry is going to change in the next 3-4 years because of healthcare reform.

Putting a significant number of its employees together in Detroit saves the company money (plus it gets nice tax incentives…) All told, the healthcare giant now has 6,000 people in Detroit (plus another 1,500 or so staying in Oakland County). Now, the Ren Cen is some 92 percent occupied because of BCBSM. He's heard that Seldom Blues might reopen, and two new food franchises are planning to move into the building's massive food court upon the news.

Here's what I thought was interesting: there are 8,000 people in that big old building. Some 5,000 are from General Motors, which recently committed to stay there too. The press conference had a host of BIG names: Bing, Chris Ilitch, GM's head honcho Ed Whitaker and the like. They are TOGETHER in this thing, this struggling city.

“We're bringing $180 million worth of payroll down here,” Loepp said. “There is a synergy happening.”

He added: “There's a lot of exciting things here, I think. … This, along with other things going on, gives the city a feeling of hope. It's clear that Mayor Bing is committed to doing the right thing around virtually everything when it comes to the city.”

Is having a good mayor enough? No, it's about having some brave (and financially savvy) business leaders willing to take “leaps of faith,” Loepp said. “It really is important for the urban centers to thrive not only for the city but for the region.”

I also LOVE that Loepp in January gave a bunch of business to Cindy Pasky of Strategic Staffing Solutions, a longtime Detroit company. Chris Ilitch told Loepp he should have his staff down to Comerica for a kind of welcome party. Loepp's company insures about half of Michigan, so he's always talking to business executives. Maybe he can spread the good word about JOBS in Michigan. (I just love capital letters today…)

I leave you with some words I stole from Mayor Bing's Facebook persona. This comment came from a Detroit resident upon hearing about the BCBSM move: “Thank you for starting to make Detroit a city where businesses WANT to be. :)”

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