Karmanos: 'It's All Detroit'

Peter Karmanos Jr. was driving to his office in the Compuware building off Campus Martius Park, when he found the streets swarming with people. It was a couple days before the Super Bowl, and the scene hit him with a wave of nostalgia.

“At first I couldn’t figure out what it was. I was just like, ‘All those people are out there on Woodward?’” says the Compuware chairman and CEO. “I haven’t seen it like that since I was a kid.”

Compuware’s 4,000 employees had one of the best seats in the house to experience the big game and ensuing parties. Karmanos, who on the Friday before the game was admittedly already a little worn out from the week’s partying, didn’t gloat. He could have, easily. Even that early, there were cheers that Detroit’s Super Bowl week was a success, and the national press – and maybe more remarkably the local media — acknowledged that Downtown looked mighty good.

He and his employees were having fun being at the heart of it all. (“Maybe too much fun from the CEO’s point of view,” he adds.) He even threw a huge game-day bash that was themed on celebrating the city’s rejuvenated urban experience as much as it celebrated what was going on at Ford Field. But Karmanos did not take the party week as a chance to give a big “told-you-so” to naysayers, people who asked why on earth would he move the world headquarters of his company to Downtown Detroit.

The billion-dollar company’s main building could as easily have gone up somewhere in the OC, er, Oakland County, but Karmanos says that he, like many other major investors in the city, truly believed in Detroit — enough to plop down $400 million for shiny new digs right in the heart of it.

 “There’s never been any second-guessing,” he says. “I said this would be the center of the entire Detroit metro area — and when I say metro area, it grinds me because it’s all Detroit.”

“This was the right thing to do,” Karmanos says, adding that his employees are overwhelming pleased with the move. “Everybody in this building shares this excitement.”

The Compuware building has undoubtedly been a catalyst to bringing more retail and residential development downtown. On its main floor, Borders, Ben & Jerry’s and Hard Rock Café have set up shop. And now, down the street, there are new restaurants, a CVS and people living in lofts and condos on Woodward Avenue.

The CEO quickly points out that he’s not alone, nor was he the first big local company in recent years to put its money and employees Downtown. “There’s some real misconceptions,” he says. “GM put their headquarters downtown. We weren’t the first. …

“The Illitches made a commitment in the area. The Fords made a commitment with the world’s best football field. Every loft project that goes up down here gets sold out. So there’s a lot of momentum,” he says.

And the ball is still rolling. Compuware is gaining neighbors as Visteon and Ernst & Young employees set up shop across the ice skating pond in another shiny new office tower. “There’s a rumor that another major corporation with as many employees and the same demographic as us is moving down here,” he says. (Check the local online forums for well-educated speculation and some rational good guessing about who that might be).

But it’s not like Karmanos is without perspective. He talks of the need to expand the redevelopment to Detroit's outlying neighborhoods. He says he’s talked with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) about needing to bring the rebuilding expertise being applied in New Orleans to some of Detroit’s neighborhoods. Imagine, he says, “if we can take the same kind of expertise and redevelop three or four square miles of Detroit — with real homes and schools and parking and some thought for rapid transit built into it.”

 He says he told Dingell: “If you guys can figure out how to rebuild a major city, then you can rebuild Detroit.”

Crazy? Too visionary and not realistic? Not going to happen? Don’t tell that to Karmanos.

What gets his goat, Karmanos says, is when Detroiters — and he means everybody north of Eight Mile, too — don’t acknowledge the significant investments being made in their city by their own people.

“The problem is almost a knee-jerk reaction that people out in the northern and northwestern suburbs have. They keep looking at (the city) through random, 30-year-old stories,” he says.

But the story is changing. Detroit is coming back, and Karmanos is in the catbird seat, sitting in a shiny office building overlooking a vibrant park, new restaurants and new places to live. It’s a city that’s starting to bustle again, like it used to, when he was a kid. Now a new generation is getting a chance to see what Detroit can be.

“A couple generations of people in the Detroit area were denied an urban experience,” he says. “I think now they are getting to experience it again, and they are thrilled with it.

Photos, from the top:

Compuware at Campus Martius at night

Peter Karmanos

The interior and fountain of Compuware

One Kennedy Center across from Compuware

Peter Karmanos

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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