Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Saving Detroit, One Foreigner at a Time

You have to love American ingenuity. A major American city has gone bankrupt and city leaders are looking to a Peruvian developer and 50,000 immigrants to save it.

Henry Ford created the modern car industry and put Detroit on the map. Now Detroit is on the map for other reasons, as it slogs through the humiliation of a municipal bankruptcy proceeding that could be a harbinger of things to come for other forlorn cities.

Fernando-PalazueloNow along comes Fernando Palazuelo, an “urban conquistador” who flew 3,700 miles from Lima, Peru to plunk down a paltry $405,000 down payment and take possession of the abandoned 40-acre Packard plant.

Most Americans have heard of David Packard, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto, California. Fewer have heard of James Ward Packard and his brother William who started what became arguably the first luxury car company. The Packard’s reputation as a reliable vehicle, the standard in its day for luxury, earned it many wealthy patrons. Before you knew it, the Packard Car Company migrated from Warren, Ohio to a 3.5 million square foot plant on 40 acres in Detroit, which opened in 1903.

Packard gets credit for many automobile innovations, such as overdrive, a transverse shock absorber and a hand shift for gears. During World War II, Packard supported the Allied cause by building airplane and PT boat engines. It emerged from the war years in good financial shape and some returning veterans, including my dad, proudly bought Packard cars.

However, success overwhelmed Packard. As it broadened its appeal by selling lower-priced models, it lost its cachet as a luxury marquee. Why pay more for a car when you could get the same features and nearly the same styling at a much lower price. The Packard Clipper was on its way to eclipse.

Since 1957 when the Clipper expired, the sprawling Packard plant has become a blackboard for graffiti. Palazuelo wants to convert it into a mixed use development, built in stages over time.

Palazuelo has experience renovating dilapidated buildings. He made a fortune converting abandoned buildings into art galleries and apartments in Spain. But the recession and a divorce sent him spiraling into bankruptcy in 2008, prompting to uproot from his native country and move to Peru.

article_landing_packardxx_9154Detroit, of course, has more ghost-town buildings than the Packard plant. But Palazuelo says the Packard name still has charisma. The plant, however, is isolated and lacks what one project developer understatedly calls “public safety.”

That’s where the 50,000 immigrants may come in. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, working without a script or a tightrope on the Detroit bankruptcy, is pitching the idea of recruiting 50,000 smart people from around the world to move to Detroit, as sort of a new wave of Pilgrims on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The recruitment would be patterned after the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, which seeks competitive proposals to win grants. The prize in this case would be 50,000 visas.

Just because Detroit is down and out doesn’t mean those who are left would be open to just anybody taking over a decrepit, unused eyesore. The newcomers must past muster with local officials, business leaders and labor unions. They shouldn’t be like oil industry workers flocking to North Dakota without housing or their families. The immigrants should come to stay.

The Packard Mall and Luxury Arms, featuring signs in 10 languages, may be a fantasy. But what harm can there be in dreaming big. What could be worse than slogging through bankruptcy, only to emerge with the same grim reality that led the city into the pit. Viva, Fermando!

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/05/realestate/commercial/a-developer-from-peru-has-big-plans-in-detroit.html?hpw&rref=automobiles&_r=0

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