How can a man with two damaged eyes have such extraordinary vision?
Dave Bing sees a Detroit, his adopted home, replete with thriving, revitalized neighborhoods, a glistening and fully developed riverfront, and the return of a substantial middle class to within the city limits. If the television hit Heroes had a local edition, Bing surely would be a lead player; his superpower would be the ability to envision a true Motor City renaissance, the kind of reawakening many others have refused to embrace or have given lip service to in decades past. Unlike many others, he has the self-made wealth, civic leadership skills, personal cachet, and successful experience navigating Detroit’s labyrinthine governmental jungle to bring inspiration to reality.
What’s really amazing is that he can see at all.
When Bing was 5, galloping with a make-believe horse he’d fashioned by nailing two boards together, he fell on the hardscrabble streets of his Washington, D.C., neighborhood, causing a nail to pierce his left eye. “Coming from a very poor family that didn’t have insurance, I couldn’t get an operation,” he says. “So just through natural healing, after the injury I was never able to see. I was legally blind in my left eye.”
The disability didn’t stop Bing, a gifted and determined athlete, from excelling in baseball and basketball at Washington’s Spingarn High School. He elected to concentrate on basketball (“I didn’t see anybody getting baseball scholarships,” he recalls, laughing), and it appears he made the right decision. The proof? All-American at Syracuse University. No. 2 pick in the NBA draft. Rookie of the Year. Seven-time All-Star for the Detroit Pistons. One of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
What makes his glorious sporting accomplishments even more remarkable is that he played more than half his 12 pro seasons after suffering a detached retina in his good eye, courtesy of an errant finger by the Lakers’ Happy Hairston. “The fortunate thing at that point was that by being a professional athlete, I had the best medical care available,” Bing says. “They were able to go in and do the corrective surgery. I wear glasses now, but I played another seven years after that, so I’ve been fortunate.”
Hard work tends to breed good fortune. Now, as chairman of the Bing Group, the automotive supplier he founded 27 years ago that today employs more than 650 with gross sales of $200 million, Bing can see his way to share his smarts and prosperity with his city. Through his new development company, Spingarn Development, LLC, he unveiled plans in May for The Watermark Detroit, a $60-million luxury residential community on 2.2 acres of former cement-factory land on the east riverfront off Atwater Street, scheduled for completion in the summer of 2009. Bing also is serving as co-chair of the Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative announced last December, targeting six sections of the city in a five-year plan to demolish abandoned houses and replace vacant lots with affordable homes and recreational greenbelts.
“Dave brings energy, business savvy, and an organized approach to this initiative,” says Walt Watkins, the city’s former chief development officer and Bing’s co-chair in Next Detroit. “He has a commitment that shines through and inspires others. I have witnessed his many contributions to Detroit over many years. He has built homes, participated in ‘Clean & Safe’ initiatives, and supported other businesses, churches, and organizations surrounding his company. We are very fortunate to have him.”
Indeed, which is why Hour Detroit names him its 2007 Detroiter of the Year. Bing was born in Washington, D.C., went to college in New York, played two seasons for his hometown Washington Bullets, and ended his hoops career with the Boston Celtics. He could have resettled anywhere to begin his post-basketball life. He was the best player on a wearying string of mediocre Pistons teams in the 1960s and early 1970s; worse, his introduction to Detroit as a Piston rookie was 1967, the summer of our riotous shame (40 years ago this month). Yet Bing, a glasshalf-full fellow if ever one existed, says those experiences were the glue that bound him to this city.
“When I reflect back, those were the years that probably helped to define and make me do what I’m doing today,” says Bing, sitting at the small conference table in his unpretentious office at the Bing Group. The only obvious sign of his first career is a worn basketball on a stand behind his desk, signifying the scoring of his 18,000th NBA point. “I had heard all of the great things from a historical perspective, but being here the first time as a 22-year-old guy and seeing what was happening was a rude awakening. As I saw a lot of the places where I visited and knew people [whose homes were] burned down, saw how people got displaced, and how they just wanted to give up and get the hell out of here, I said, ‘You know, this is where I want to be. I want to put my roots down here.’
“Whether or not I ended my career here didn’t really matter. It’s the people; it’s the excitement in this area. I mean, I love D.C. That area is hard to beat. Boston area, hard to beat. But neither one of those cities is like Detroit. Detroit’s altogether different. It is a blue-collar town; it’s a city that is going through a transition, trying to find itself, trying to redefine itself. I can’t make a major impact on the whole city, but in a couple of communities I believe I can make a difference.”
Given the remarkable success the Pistons have enjoyed in recent years, it’s almost hard to remember a time when the franchise played downtown to empty seats at Cobo Arena. Bing remembers, and was able to turn even that dismal situation into a positive. “You know, Cobo was unique,” he says. “And because basketball wasn’t that popular because we weren’t that good, the average Joe could come in and get a damn good seat. So you got to know 2,000, 3,000 people personally, intimately, every night. That’s what helped make my decision to be here, because I met so many good people here. So coming back here, I never gave a second thought about that.”
Bing, 63, says a lot of average Joes have been critical of his Watermark project, claiming that any development offering 112 condos and town homes that start in the high $300,000s and will run as high as $1.2 million is effectively squeezing Detroit’s poor off the riverfront. You know what, he counters? They’re right.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Poor people can’t afford what you’re doing,’ and I’m saying I don’t have a problem with that,” Bing says. “They don’t understand the reason the city is where it is today is because we’ve got all poor people living there. You have to have a class of residents that can pay taxes so the city can generate the revenue that’s necessary to continue to develop.
“I’m not anti-poor. I mean, that was my background. But on the river, no, that’s not for poor people at all. I mean, the worst thing you could do is have Section 8 housing on the riverfront. If you really want to look at what’s happening in America, you’ve got to look at the major cities, and we are still one. And we happen to be one that has an almost totally undeveloped riverfront downtown. I think it’s the most valuable property that the City of Detroit has. What’s important on the riverfront is that people have access to it. So the whole RiverWalk gives people the access. Even though they can’t live there, they can come down and they can enjoy it. I think that’s part of what the transition is right now.”
Which prompts the obvious question: If Detroit residents are so poor, who’s going to be moving into these high-end Watermark palaces? “You’d be surprised how many rich people are still in this area, and I only want 112 of them,” Bing, a Franklin resident, says. “By being first [of three proposed riverfront housing projects to reach a development agreement with the city], I think I’ll tap into that reservoir pretty quick regardless of how tough our primary industry, the automotive business, is right now.
“When you look around the country, there aren’t many places you can live on the water anymore. And when you compare the cost of living on the water in Detroit versus other cities, it’s a deal. I’ve got people from New York saying, ‘It’s how much a square foot? I’ll take two! I’ll take three!’ Some people may look at this as an investment opportunity, but quite frankly we don’t want that. We want people to actually live there. A lot of hits on our Web site (watermarkdetroit.com) have been from people in the suburbs here who would like to come back downtown and use it as their primary residence. That’s what we want. That’s very important.”
Considerably more affordable are residences like the rows of infill homes Bing has constructed in Detroit’s battered Northend neighborhood adjacent to his 30-acre Bing Group headquarters. “The city has lost its middle class, and the only way to get them back is to create the right kind of environment and provide them with the kind of services they’ve become accustomed to,” he says.
“The homes I’m building are in a very poor community here, but you’ve got people in Detroit who can afford $200,000 homes. And a lot of households are making $40,000- $50,000 a year, and they can afford these homes. What you’ve got to do is make sure they get value. You don’t want to put up cheap homes and expect people to fl ock to you like you’re doing them a hell of a favor. And you don’t want to put up projects, because I think that creates a mindset that generation after generation learns to accept. So you’ve got to show them something different.”
Bing hopes his efforts will spur what he calls “true developers” to follow suit. “If they see a market here, they can do what we’re doing but do it quicker and bigger because that’s their business,” he says. “I’m starting to hear from developers who are saying, ‘Detroit’s the hot market, but we don’t know how to manipulate through the red tape in city government. Obviously, you’ve been able to do that, so can you tell us how?’ Well, I guess we can work together some way. I think a lot of people understand now that for Michigan to do well, Detroit needs to do well. So it’s important that we pay attention to Detroit.”
And although he’s hesitant to use the word “transition” in terms of his own career, having his three daughters working at the Bing Group with him in management roles has allowed Bing to stretch his entrepreneurial wings beyond his core business. “I’ve been an automotive supplier now for 27 years, so I hope I’ve seen the worst of it,” he says with a wry smile. “But having said that, it’s a tough, tough business, and I don’t think it’s going to get any easier from my vantage point. Personally, I don’t see me being a global player, and growth in this business is on a global scale. I’m at an age and a point in my life where I don’t know that I want to spend a lot of time in China or India or Russia. That’s possible for the next generation, maybe, but not for me.”