I’d like to get some thoughts from you on specific trends in commercial real estate that you’ve noticed in Detroit or in the suburbs during your tenure at Honigman.
Because of concerns about the virus, that leads to less population use of restaurants and other entertainment spaces. But I believe that will be short-lived, after the solution is found and people return to downtown. I’ve seen a reclaiming of cities and a reclaiming of some of our historic spaces and some of the history and the beauty of the architecture that we’ve had. So that was a good part. I’ve seen that put on pause because of the pandemic, but I’m a firm believer that the trend to city life will again be reclaimed when the health issues of the pandemic are resolved.
What were some of the more memorable things you worked on during your time at Honigman?
As I look back on it, probably one of the things that I’m most proud is the impact that I, along with others, have had on the landscape, on the downtown core in Detroit. I think back to a time not so long ago when the area around Campus Martius and the stretch up Woodward to Grand Circus (Park) was really vacant. There was vacant land, there were vacant and underused buildings. One of the things being the construction of the (former) Compuware (Corp.) building and that structure’s sort of setting an anchor for the Campus Martius Park, and then Dan Gilbert and Bedrock came in and helped restore and reposition historic buildings around Campus Martius and down that stretch of Woodward, and I was proud to have a role in participating with them.
I can remember a meeting I participated in, which was the first meeting that Dan Gilbert had with then mayor (Kwame Kilpatrick) about trying to convince him to come downtown. And that meeting was at his offices in an office park in Livonia. From that day, there were discussions and he came downtown.
What was that meeting like?
It was Mayor Kilpatrick and George Jackson (former head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.). I remember sitting in a conference room out where Gilbert was located, talking about the pros and the cons of that move, and it turned out to be definitely a win-win for him and for the city of Detroit.
Was it a sales pitch?
He had already started considering moving into Detroit, but it was a sales pitch and how important he would be to the city’s future. They were pitching him but he was a willing participant. He already had looked at some of the possibilities.
What’s one project you worked on that you were sure would get finished but ultimately got away?
It’s not that it got away, but I have put a lot of effort in the Paradise Valley project, which was structured to be a way for African Americans to have an investment and development downtown. I retired before I got that across the finish line. I hope with the commitment for investing more with African American developers, there will be a way to get that across the finish line. That Paradise Valley development definitely will have a huge impact on downtown life, as well as showcasing the kind of work that African American developers can do. I’m a firm believer that the city will never see its full potential without including everyone under the tent. It has to include developers of color and women developers. There are very few women-owned firms in development. We have some African American and Latino firms.
What keeps you busy outside of work?
I’m an avid reader and I’m always looking to learn, so I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about history. I am a student of African American history, which is part of what I hope to bring to some of the students with this pilot project I’m working on (with The Africa-America Institute). We are looking at some of the social justice concerns around what’s happened with George Floyd, attacking that by giving students a more honest understanding of the history of the country, whether it’s slavery or its relationship with people of color and thinking deep so students get a broader education around African American history and culture. That helps attack racism. That’s been something I’ve personally been passionate about, and I do a lot of reading and thinking in that area.
What else is important to talk about?
I’d like to talk a little more about the whole issue of how we solve the development problem in Detroit. I think we have a window to get some real progress made, and we’ll have to be strategic about it. I have watched the number of commitments of the large banks after the social justice reckoning we’ve been going through. Just last week, JPMorgan Chase & Co. made this $30 million commitment to try to address the wealth gap of African Americans in the country, but that has a silver lining for a city like Detroit because to the extent this large commitment of funds are made by CitiBank, JPMorgan Chase, Huntington Bank, that gives an opportunity for more capital to be invested in Detroit, and that’s been one of the most serious problems for developers in Detroit of all colors, whether white, Black and Latino. Detroit has not had the institutional capital needed to build large projects. We are fortunate to have Bedrock and Dan Gilbert, who was willing to commit capital that he controls, but we need access for Detroit to reach its full potential to the wide range of institutional capital out there, and I’m going to continue to lend my efforts to try to help Detroit gets its fair share. Overall, Detroit has not been seen as a prime market. It’s come up a lot, a long way from where we were 10 years ago. One of the most important parts of achieving that is getting access to capital and it’s amazing that same theme permeates developers of color, women developers and the city overall. You have to have projects evaluated and appraised fairly. And then you have to have the willingness to take the risk on investment in the projects and lending in the projects. I think we have a window for some serious progress to be made, but that’s gonna be something I’m gonna be focused on in retirement.
Another area is diversity of the legal profession, and I’ve been committed to that all the time at Honigman. That too turns on investment in human resources, where we mentor and coach and try to help others develop business. As I was retiring, I tried to transfer a number of my clients to women partners and partners of color to try to help give them the leg up on being rainmakers. It’s hard to do that in a large law firm. You have to have a lot of relationships, and it takes a lot of investment of your personal skills and time. That’s something we have to keep our eyes on. There is a lot of talent within the firms, but it has to include opportunity for all lawyers. That’s something I have personally tried to practice during the time I was with the firm, and I see a lot of progress that’s been made and it has to be nurtured and continued and I’m going to do my best to keep that going.
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