All Dressed Up & Ready …

Cobo Center is still a work in progress, but Auto Show visitors will notice a host of improvements

The revitalized Cobo Center complex no longer has a formal “Arena,” as many remember it. They called it Cobo Arena back when it was barely attached to the southeast corner of the original Cobo Hall. They were really two different buildings, and the arena looked like a big round cake or a hat box.

The arena’s shell still stands, but gone are its interior tiers, stairs, and chairs where emotional Detroiters sat or leapt to their feet to see and hear Martin Luther King Jr., Dave Bing, George Wallace, Dick the Bruiser, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones. The last show was a 2009 Phish concert.

Inside the skeleton of the old, gray building, the entire interior has been scooped out. Parts of the old, outer wall act as backing to new glassed-in lobbies. On nice days, visitors on the south side get a good view from several levels of blue sky, blue water, and greater horizons.

Inside are the amenities — some quite impressive — of a 21st century convention center. A spectacular glass atrium fronting the river joins what were once two buildings. In front is a large, white rectangle that suggests an open doorway. To the east, in the “footprint” of the old arena, stands the new Grand Riverview Ballroom.

An Auto Show ‘Debut’

With about two-thirds of its renovation complete, the new Cobo Center will hold its biggest event yet, the 25th Annual North American International Auto Show, beginning with press previews on Jan. 13, the annual charity bash on Jan. 17 (featuring Sheryl Crow), and the public show Jan. 18-26.

Some of the visitors may be pleasantly surprised by what they see. Others may be stunned.

“Now, you see the light and it draws you down to the river,” says Geoffrey Harrison, the architect. “The atrium is the centerpiece; it’s going to tie everything together.”

The pre-function area on the south end of the adjacent ballroom “has glass that loops to views of Canada and the river,” he says.

A stairway leads from the atrium directly down to the river. Visitors can descend to take in the breeze and watch the ships pass between the Ambassador and Belle Isle Bridges.

“It’s dramatic, it’s phenomenal,” says Larry Alexander, the chairman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, which runs the building. “It’s a major change.”

During the coming auto show, the Grand Riverview Ballroom will host several events.

Ford’s corporate presence will dominate the new room during the show, and product unveiling is possible on either of two parallel platforms that rise from below the floor and form an instant stage.

“We’re looking to have 55 or so world debuts,” says Rod Alberts, executive director of the show. He says Detroit never was in danger of losing the entire auto show, a tradition that goes back to 1907.

But Cobo’s deterioration and poor management threatened the show’s international component, nurtured over the last quarter-century. That changed, Alberts says, when a regional authority took over Cobo from the City of Detroit in 2009.

“The Kwame Kilpatrick time was a challenging time, no doubt,” Alberts says of the convicted former mayor. “Some of the contracts in the building had gone awry a bit. Services were a little bit compromised. They’ve got more done in the last three years than they did in the 20 years prior.”

Advantage: The River

For all the money being spent ($279 million) on the three-year project, the best parts of the new Cobo are free — the water of the Detroit River and the sky above it (which comes in blue, gray, or black).

They are decorative elements here long before the French canoes landed but invisible for more than a half-century through the mostly windowless walls of Cobo Arena and Cobo Hall.

“They ignored their greatest asset,” says Harrison, the project manager for S.D.G. Associates. “If you were in the concourse, you wouldn’t know the river was there, a few feet away.”

Alexander adds: “How the hell did we ever go 40 years without looking at water? It took this long for us to wake up.”

Even when Cobo expanded a quarter-century ago, Harrison says, it went north, east, and west while ignoring the natural beauty on the site’s south side. Harrison has corrected this mistake.

Staging Detroit’s Comeback

This year, the focus will be on the Grand Riverview Ballroom with a 40-foot ceiling instead of 18, as was the case in the main hall’s old ballroom.

But what about Cobo Center the rest of the year, when the auto show is not in session? The optimistic forecast says the new Cobo will galvanize the city’s convention, hotel, and restaurant business while spreading its positive spirit along the RiverWalk and up through a newly gentrified downtown.

Alexander says using the waterway as transportation can be revived with water taxis that take conventioneers and tourists from Cobo to the Renaissance Center, Belle Isle, and beyond.

With the old Hotel Pontchartrain renovated and reopened as the Crowne Plaza Pontchartrain and a boutique hotel planned for the old fire station across the street from Cobo, boosters see a rebound in business. Bookings are up. A group of convention planners (the American Society of Association Executives) will convene there in 2015.

“We’re running this like a business now,” says Patrick S. Bero, the CEO and chief financial officer of the building. “How can we get the most bang for our buck?”

The pessimistic prediction might be that one city, three counties, and one state are wasting $279 million in a quixotic project that, like the Renaissance Center and others, will fail to deliver on its early promise.

Alexander, also the chairman of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, tends toward optimism. “Everybody is looking at this as an example of how the region should work together,” Alexander says. What of those who might say one of Detroit’s assets is being taken away?

“We haven’t moved it,” he says. “It’s still here.”

The Next Steps

The five-member regional board — Detroit and Michigan plus the counties of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb — must vote unanimously on everything.

Alexander, the state-appointed member of the board, vows that all finances will be transparent and that the remodeling will be finished on time (2015) and on budget.

And he also says there might be new ways to finance the building without taxes. One might be the selling of naming rights to a complex named after a former mayor and opened in 1960.

Imagine “Little Caesars Center” or “QuickenLoans Palace” or “(Your Auto Company Here) Place.” Alexander did not specifically say naming rights were for sale. But he didn’t deny it, either.

“Well, we’ll see,” Alexander says with a smile on recent afternoon. “I’ve got a couple of things up my sleeve. One of them could be naming rights.” For sure, he says, advertising will be sold on two large display boards outside Cobo.

Decline … and Rebirth?

Bero, the hands-on supervisor of construction, says the new Cobo could be “the tip of the spear” that leads the Detroit area into a new era or “an example of failure that was to lead to the continuing decline of the city and the region.”

“And failure is not an option,” Bero says.

He speaks while walking in his hard hat and reflective vest among the project’s metal and concrete intestines, pointing out new balconies with wide views of sky and water. In the other direction, you could look down and see where figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked in 1994.

He points out parts of the structure sturdy enough to survive the remodeling. “It has such good bones,” Bero says. “A testament to worksmanship.” But outside of that, “things were falling apart.”

That problem took on ludicrous symbolism in 2009 when what are called “diaper tarps” were put over cracks in the roof. Water seeped out of the diapers and onto new cars at the auto show.

That also let in what Gerald Poisson, Oakland County chief deputy executive, called “the cold, harsh wind of reality” because one of Detroit’s signature events had embarrassed itself.

International show boss Alberts recalls creating a makeshift dam indoors at Cobo to stem the flow of water from several leaks. “We had a little pond,” he recalls. It was on the floor, behind the scenes. “Nobody knew,” he says.

Nobody will miss those fiascos in the main hall, but some might yearn for the ambience of the little, old Cobo Arena, where a vendor named Big Gus twisted in the balcony during basketball games.

No Looking Back

Bero says he understands a sense of loss for people who feel nostalgia for Cobo’s history, but adds: “As an arena, Cobo had outlived its useful life. You can’t have dead assets on the books.”

In agreement with him is Bing, Detroit’s outgoing mayor, who arrived here in 1966 as a rookie for the woebegone Pistons, giving the team, the arena, and the city a sense of energy and hope.

In his 11th floor office in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center one recent morning, Bing looked out over the riverfront where he arrived almost 50 years ago. From his window — it needed cleaning on the outside — he could see where, in his adult lifetime, they built the RenCen, tore down Ford Auditorium, and constructed Hart Plaza where grass once sloped to the edge of the river.

On Bing’s wall hung the No. 21 jersey he wore. He played there when Cobo seemed state of the-art — a cozy arena of 11,000 theater-style seats of red, blue, and gold.

Over the years, its small capacity and lack of amenities like luxury boxes made it outmoded. Even Joe Louis Arena, which opened next door in 1979, is considered out of date.

Bing first played at Cobo nine months before the riot of 1967. He was a fresh face in what seemed an ascendant city. But when asked about nostalgia, the mayor says he would rather think ahead. “Everyone is linked to history,” he says. “But this is about now and the future. We can’t hold our arms around our history. I have no sentimentality.”

Who’s to choose which were the most memorable moments of old Cobo Arena? Here’s one list.

MARTIN LUTHER KING’S “DREAM” SPEECH, 1963: Dr. King gave an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech in Cobo Arena at the end of a civil rights march down Woodward Avenue on June 23. Recordings reveal it as well-delivered but not quite to the level of polish he reached later that summer in Washington, D.C., with a similar speech at the Lincoln Memorial.

DAVE BING’S HOME DEBUT, 1966: Drafted in the first round from Syracuse when fans wanted Michigan’s Cazzie Russell instead, Bing arrived as a slender, 22-year-old rookie in the autumn of 1966 and went on to the Basketball Hall of Fame before becoming a local businessman and mayor. His home court debut was on Oct. 18 against the Cincinnati Royals, a two-point Detroit victory.

JAMES BROWN CONCERT, 1968: He played Cobo several times, but the event on April 15 was special. Brown was in his prime. It was the day after Easter. Pastel colors on suits were popular with men that year and the bowl of the arena looked like a basket of Easter eggs.  Brown out-dressed and out-danced them all.  It was 11 days after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.

ROLLING STONES, 1972: They played back-to-back nights in Cobo on July 13 and 14. On the first night, Motown’s Stevie Wonder opened for them and excelled while the Stones seemed lethargic. Having been upstaged, the Stones came back for the second show with power and pizzazz at least equal to the local hero.

ATTACK ON NANCY KERRIGAN, 1994: At a figure skating practice session on Jan. 6 preceding the Winter Olympics, Kerrigan was hit on the knee with a metal baton and injured by an associate of a competitor, Tonya Harding. Kerrigan won a silver medal at the Games; Harding won nothing. — Joe Lapointe