The October evening concludes with a loud, festive, Motown-themed reception on the riverfront, the first event at the new Robert C. Valade Park. And Adrian Tonon, true to his reputation, seems to be everywhere at once: a firm handshake here, an arm around the shoulder there, an intimate conversation, a whispered aside. When someone mentions the soirée was organized by Tonon, Detroit’s first 24-hour economy ambassador, Harry LaRosiliere, mayor of Plano, Texas, is instantly intrigued.
“Can you point him out to me, please?” the mayor asks. “I’ve never heard of anyone with a title like that before.”
He’s not alone. Most Detroiters don’t know they have an official nabob of the night, appointed last year by Mayor Mike Duggan, much less what Tonon’s duties entail. As this Detroit Country Day and Michigan State alum views it, his tasks are multifold: to sustain the city’s resurgence by making Detroit a welcoming and supportive community for creatives of all kinds; to serve as liaison between its food and entertainment businesses — particularly those operating from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. — developers, city agencies, and the public; and to help realize the vision of Detroit becoming a true “24-hour economy.”
So, while his title may spark images of some City Hall-sanctioned, club-hopping party poobah, Tonon is quick to note his job isn’t all fun and Greektown flames.
“Here’s what I want to make very clear: It’s not about the party,” he says. “For example, if you want to see a true 24-hour economy, go to Henry Ford Hospital. When the doctors, the nurses, the janitors get off at five or six in the morning, is there a restaurant to go to? A dry cleaner they can use? A grocery store? Or the people who work in automotive and in the factories all night? They all want quality of life. So that’s really what it’s about. It’s also to assure, hopefully, that your city doesn’t lose its mojo. That’s what I feel my primary function is.”
Historically, artists, musicians, and other creatives and the venues where they can perform and unwind have been essential to maintaining a city’s mojo, especially one as traditionally talent-rich as Detroit. But they’re often the first to be uprooted by development when a city begins to thrive. “And cities that have displaced their creative community, now they’re begging for them to come back,” Tonon observes.
The ideal, he says, is to make sure that Detroit is inclusive. “You need more places for people to live, but you build residential in neighborhoods where there’s already an organic culture,” he explains. “Music plays late, someone buys a $300,000 condo across the street and says, ‘Turn that music down! I can’t sleep at night!’ But that music’s been there for 30 years.
“We have to be respectful of those who invest in our city — the developers — but they have to know they’re the change agent. We’re getting better as a city at saying, ‘Hey, developer, there’s this music venue, this cultural asset, across the street. How do we work together?’ Do you gauge your windows differently? Help the club soundproof its building? Because the club is what makes your neighborhood cool. And nine out of 10 developers get that.”
Tonon isn’t the nation’s first nighttime economy champion: New York City and Washington, D.C., for instance, created similar positions years ago. The concept of a “night mayor” has long existed in Europe. Yet this year, Tonon has delivered a keynote address in Sydney and presented PowerPoints in Stockholm as the unique nature of his role in America’s Comeback City has attracted global attention.
He’s perfectly suited to the task. Tonon learned the fundamentals of customer service and hospitality as a reluctant child laborer in his family’s restaurant, Rina’s of Detroit, on the city’s west side. Later he joined his parents, Adriano and Rina, at their award-winning Café Cortina in Farmington Hills. Meanwhile, growing up with his “second family,” Dennis and Trudy DunCombe Archer and their sons, instilled a passion for public service.
“Dennis [Jr.] and Vincent are two of my best friends,” Tonon says of the former Detroit mayor’s sons. “I’ve always been very close to my family, but they took me in when I was a kid. I feel I got the desire to embrace mankind from my parents, who are very community minded, but I got the political bug from being around the Archers all the time.
“But I’ll say this,” he adds, “You don’t choose it. It chooses you.”
Tonon also knows the entertainment side of the nightlife equation as co-founder of the Detroit Music Foundation and an entrepreneur who owns his own record label, Sick Em Records, co-founded with Detroit-based hip-hop artist Kid Vishis. But when Duggan announced his candidacy for mayor in 2013, the political bug chomped Tonon hard; he sought out Duggan to join his campaign team. The new mayor subsequently named him Detroit’s founding director of customer service, a title he still holds today.
“What doesn’t Adrian do for the city?” marvels Rochelle Riley, journalist and Detroit’s director of arts and culture, whose mission frequently intertwines with Tonon’s. “As director of customer service, he never met a problem he couldn’t solve, and as 24-hour economy ambassador he is a vital bridge between city government, entertainers, and venues across the city. He has proved invaluable to me as we work to ensure the success of Detroit’s artists and arts organizations.”
Tonon works for — and alongside — the mayor’s chief of staff, Alexis Wiley. “I think the 24-hour economy is a huge part of our future,” Wiley says. “For me, it’s supporting what he does and making sure when people come to Detroit, they feel they get the support they need. That doesn’t happen in a lot of cities, and it hasn’t happened a lot in Detroit. We’re trying to change that.”
Indeed, on a night that both Tonon and his young assistant, Jabari Jefferson, describe as “typical,” the 24-hour man will be part diplomat, part negotiator, part advocate … just like any other ambassador. After closing down the Conference of Mayors event, Tonon:
• Races into the Rattlesnake Club to meet and greet Michelle Müntefering, German minister of state at the Federal Foreign Office. Tonon was to be part of the dinner party for the visiting Müntefering, but the mayors’ party took precedence.
• Stops by a Congress Street nightspot to commiserate with the owner, whose business is being severely disrupted by a private construction firm that has ripped up the streets around him. Tonon promises to review construction permits and do what he can.
• Jumps into the Townhouse Detroit restaurant to surprise assistant general manager Bryan Moody with a City of Detroit Certificate of Recognition praising him for his “excellent customer service and continued work as a leader in strengthening our workplaces.”
• Drives through several Detroit entertainment districts, monitoring the noise levels with a decibel meter app on his phone. In Greektown, he checks in with a number of business owners whom he helped form a coalition to work with Detroit Police to reduce the street incidents that have beset the district in recent years. “We decided it was time to do something more unified and proactive,” says Yanni Dionisopoulos, owner of the Golden Fleece restaurant and co-owner of Exodus Rooftop Lounge.
His assistant, Jefferson, a Detroit native and Henry Ford Community College freshman, has been so inspired watching Tonon at work that he plans to pursue a political science degree and bring his knowledge back to his hometown.
“He’s a one-in-a-million guy,” Jefferson says, out of Tonon’s earshot. “Everything he knows about public service, about hospitality. I’d say he’s one of hardest workers in our city government, no bias.”
Tonon admits he doesn’t know how long he can maintain his nonstop pace, especially as the father of four, but for now, he finds his job too fascinating to leave. “You’re inspired by the work,” he says, “and I don’t take it for granted.”
But glamorous? Not always.
“Sleeping has become like a job,” Tonon laments. “I have to schedule it. The other night I said, ‘You’ve got to be in bed by this time,’ and by the time I got home I missed my window. I slept in my suit that night.”