Hands across the river: Windsor champions Detroit's strengths

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Detroit Free Press/Alisa Priddle


As Detroit’s leaders try to operate and restructure a city in bankruptcy, its Canadian neighbor is stepping up to champion the region.

Windsor’s mayor, tourism bureau and the head of economic development are leading a rallying cry around the globe to trumpet the strengths of Windsor-Detroit as a still-strong, two-nation destination.

“What’s good for Detroit is good for Windsor and vice versa,” said Gordon Orr, CEO of Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island.

Since Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July, Windsor’s leaders have worked to reassure nervous investors and tourists that it’s business as usual in Detroit and that the city is more vibrant than in years. Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis and Sandra Pupatello, CEO of WindsorEssex Economic Development Corp., are using speaking engagements around the world to explain that Detroit’s municipal government is bankrupt — not the economy, residents and amenities.

“People in Detroit don’t realize we use them in our pitch every day,” said Pupatello, the former Ontario minister of economic development and trade who left politics and now promotes development for the Windsor area. “The Windsor-Detroit corridor is our lifeblood, and we have championed that and still do. We need to redouble our efforts and tell people it is time to jump on board from an investment perspective.”

Windsor leadership is working to debunk myths that a broke city has ground to a standstill, that downtown Detroit is dead and that the tunnel between the two city cores has also closed because of the bankruptcy filing.

“It’s like protecting your best player on the ice,” said Pupatello. “There is no question the fact we’re nestled beside Detroit is a big boon for us.”

It's more than Canadian politeness

Windsor has invested millions in a waterfront with an unobstructed view of Detroit, 6,100 people commute to Detroit each day, the city has offered to buy Detroit’s side of the tunnel, and the city is undergoing massive construction to create a gateway to a proposed new bridge.

“We need Detroit to do well,” said Mayor Francis. “That border is a way of life for us. We’ll do the best we can to help from our side.”

Windsor, a city of 211,000, uses its proximity to Detroit, a city of 714,000, as a selling point.

Windsor enjoys big-city perks such as shopping, restaurants, entertainment, Motown, a zoo and four major league sports teams without having to invest a dime.

Windsor welcomes 3.5 million visitors a year, supporting 18,000 jobs and generating $300 million in economic spinoff. That is down from 9.1 million visitors, mostly day-trippers, who used to cross the Detroit River and spend $1 billion a year before the 911 terrorist attack tightened border security.

It is well known locally that the best view of Detroit’s skyline is from Windsor. Thousands of Americans prefer to watch the annual international fireworks display, or Red Bull air races, from the Canadian shore so they can admire the Detroit skyline in the background. Canadian tourists to Detroit like the idea of being able to visit a second country.

Combining forces for international bids

Twelve days after Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Windsor Mayor Francis flew to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to support Detroit’s pitch to host the 2021 World Police and Fire Games. The games attracted 18,000 people to Belfast this summer.

Dave Beachnau, executive director of the Detroit Sports Commission, said the organizers were impressed that Francis took the time to travel to Ireland. “It expressed the importance of the event to our region. He’s been a great visionary.”

Larry Alexander, CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, who was also part of the delegation, said that Francis “made a personal, passionate plea.”

Orr — Windsor’s tourism CEO — agreed the mayor’s presence made a difference. “They were impressed that our mayor would stand up and be the figurehead of support for Detroit.”

The two cities make stronger bids as a unified international team.

There are 1,600 hotel rooms in the downtown Windsor core to augment Detroit’s 5,000 rooms. And Windsor is completing a $77-million Olympic quality aquatic center described as the best facility in North America and second only to London’s and Beijing’s. It will open in December and gives the Detroit Sports Commission a leg up in future bids for international sporting events.

“Windsor has been a great partner for us and always been there to promote assets that help both sides,” Alexander said.

“We steal the best from each other,” said Orr, his Windsor counterpart. “When Detroit’s going after big international stuff, Canada can sweeten the bid.”

Detroit puts Windsor on the world map

The two cities have a list of hits they have collaborated on: the fireworks, the 2006 Super Bowl, Red Bull Air Races, the Belle Isle Grand Prix. Windsor even has a bus route that goes through the city into downtown Detroit and back — the only Canadian city to operate an international transit system.

Detroit gave $25,000 to Windsor to support its bid for the 2016 FINA World Swimming Championships, which would use the new aquatic center and fill hotel rooms on both sides of the river. Windsor put a picture of Detroit on the cover of the bid literature to identify where little-known Windsor is on a map of the world.

Francis traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, for the FINA announcement, where he learned that his previously unknown city beat Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi to host the championship held every two years.

“People know Detroit,” Orr said. “Good or bad, they know it and where it is. It puts Windsor on the map as the northern neighbor.”

An additional message that Windsor sells is its fiscal soundness.

Detroit has $18 billion in long-term debt and liabilities and has the highest tax rates in the state. But Windsor has slashed long-term debt from $370 million in 2003 to $114 million today on a path to further cut it to $95 million by 2016. Property taxes have held or been reduced in the last five years and six of the last eight. The total property levy for 2013 is $5.3 million less than in 2006.

During the ensuing recession, Windsor introduced a $646-million capital infrastructure plan, the largest in the city’s history, to emerge as a modern, attractive city. Among the projects is a new bus terminal and an improved airport, as well as contributions to the $1.8-billion roadway and new bridge planned to connect Windsor and Detroit. The city has not issued debt since 2002, Francis said.

“We have more interactions with the city of Detroit than any other Canadian city,” Francis said.

Adds Pupatello: “We have the same empathy as Detroiters do. We feel like it’s our city.”

Pooling international resources
Detroit and Windsor have worked together to host many big-name events.
■ River Days, Summer Fest and fireworks: Annual events drawing huge crowds on both sides of the border, marking Independence Day (July 4) and Canada Day (July 1).
■ 2006 Super Bowl: The big game was held in Detroit with Canadian sponsorship and jammed hotel rooms, restaurants and bars on both sides. NFL Canada built a playground on the Windsor waterfront for children with disabilities to play as part of its sponsorship.
■ Red Bull Air Races: Detroit and Windsor cohosted the thrilling aerial acrobatics competition in 2009; Windsor hosted it solo in 2010, but the planes still thrilled spectators on both sides of the Detroit River, where the course was set up.
■ Belle Isle Grand Prix: The high-profile race is in Detroit, with Windsor sponsorship.
■ FINA World Swimming Championships: To be held in Windsor in 2016. Detroit contributed to the bid that also relies on the city’s hotels and amenities.
■ World Police and Fire Games: Detroit is bidding to host the games in 2021 with Windsor’s help. Officials from both cities flew to Belfast, Northern Ireland, to make the pitch.

Windsor aquatic center third best in world
Windsor will open its new $77-million downtown aquatic center and water park in December. It’s described as the best facility in North America and third only to London’s and Beijing’s. Among its features:
■ 72-meter pool with two moving bulkheads and adjustable starting blocks make it possible to create three separate pools. Water depth and temperature can even be different with an adjustable floor height at one end.
■ 10-meter (40-foot) diving platform as well as 7-, 5- and 3-meter platforms and a 1-meter board.
■ Giant screens and projectors for movie night in the pool.
■ Activity pool for games, aerobics
■ 185,000-square-foot facility includes a 1,400-square-foot waterpark with slides, surf area and a lazy river.
■ Indoor play area for kids and a health club.

A tale of two cities

Detroit, a.k.a. the Motor City

■ Founded in 1701 by French explorers, grew to prominence because of the auto industry
■ Population: 714,000
■ Size: 143 square miles
■ Location: North of Windsor
■ People: Known as Detroiters. 2010 census found 83% African American, 11% white
■ Drinking age: 21
■ Casinos: Four
■ Culture: Motown
■ Sports: Four major league teams

Windsor, a.k.a. the City of Roses, nicknamed Motor City of Canada

■ Inhabited by First Nation until French founders settled in 1749
■ Population: About 211,000
■ Size: 47 square miles
■ Location: South of Detroit
■ People: Windsorites. In 2006 census, 77% white, 4% African Canadian
■ Forbidden fruit: Illegal spirits smuggled to Detroit during Prohibition; Hiram Walker distillery set up headquarters in 1858; current drinking age (19) attracts those still underage in Michigan; Cuban cigars legal; same-sex marriage legal
■ Casinos: One
■ Tea Party: An alternative rock band based in Windsor