NFL Draft is a showcase not only for players, but for Detroit and its progress

DETROIT — At the corner of Randolph and Fort Streets here last Friday, a couple of workers used a paint scraper to remove a promotional sticker for an upcoming concert off a parking sign. It was a final, and meticulous, spruce-up before Thursday’s NFL Draft brings an expected 100,000-plus fans and hours of national television exposure.

In some cities, hosting the NFL Draft is just hosting the NFL Draft — a fun, unique three-day event that has toured the country since leaving New York in 2015.

For Detroit, it was seen by both public and private interests as something more: a rare opportunity to showcase the city. Or more specifically, how far the city, particularly downtown, has come in the decade since it became the largest U.S. municipality to declare bankruptcy, let alone since 2006, when it hosted the Super Bowl.

“A lot of people haven’t been here in years,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan told Yahoo Sports. “I think they will see the riverfront, see the construction, see what is happening in the city and come away with a different impression.”

For decades Detroit has been known as beaten up and beaten down. It was a reputation well-earned — population loss, blight, urban ruins, high crime and so on. The challenges remain vast — “We’ve got a long way to go, no question,” Duggan said.

Yet progress can’t be denied. Visitors and viewers alike will be greeted with streets of bars and restaurants, cranes above completing new skyscrapers and high-end condo developments filling formerly empty parcels and once-broken buildings.

No, this isn’t San Francisco or Miami or Los Angeles. But Duggan isn’t afraid to note that there are advantages here too.

“Everyone who visited last year said, ‘Where is the graffiti? Where are the homeless encampments?’” Duggan said. “We don’t have graffiti and homeless encampments. I think it shocked them.”

Detroit is attempting to showcase the progress it's made with the eyes of the country tuning in to the 2024 NFL Draft. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Detroit is attempting to showcase the progress it's made with the eyes of the country tuning in to the 2024 NFL Draft. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Other host cities have found more expansive parks or areas to host the draft and gather fans. Last year Kansas City, for example, used the area next to Union Station, about two miles south of downtown.

Detroit purposefully tucked the draft into its central business district, using public streets, plazas and parking lots for not just the stage, but viewing areas, food trucks, concerts, family entertainment and the NFL Draft Experience.

With huge crowds of both locals and out-of-town visitors expected — Detroit’s 6,000 hotel rooms sold out for the weekend, according to the tourism board — the goal was to immerse the draft within the downtown. It should boost local businesses and maximize the promotional impact from hours of live national broadcasts.

“I think some people who visit will end up moving here even if they never thought Detroit would be in their plans,” Duggan said. “Entrepreneurs will realize this is a cost-effective place to start a company. And corporate leaders who are looking to open an office will see this as a place to invest.”

Detroit still has plenty of problems, including poverty, education and dysfunction. However, for the first time in a generation or two, positive momentum isn’t one of them.

The aforementioned riverfront has been cleaned up, becoming an award-winning jogging, biking and recreational attraction.

It will be bolstered by the opening next year of the 22-acre Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park, which will transform a former industrial area. It is funded by the foundation of Wilson, the late Detroit native and billionaire team owner of the Buffalo Bills.

Across downtown, midtown and surrounding neighborhoods, housing, hotels, theaters, retail stores and restaurants are filling former shuttered fronts and forgotten buildings. Those range from historic skyscrapers to reclaimed wastelands.

Meanwhile, the University of Michigan has broken ground on a graduate school in a once-forlorn spot that is now steps from the three modern stadiums where all four local professional teams play.

And in trendy nearby Corktown, Ford is completing a $740 million renovation of a long abandoned 20-story train station that will turn an eyesore into a business incubator and hub for the development of autonomous vehicles. Hotels, condos and coffee shops have already sprung up in anticipation.

On television, the under-construction 685-foot Hudson Tower will be hard to miss. Developed by Dan Gilbert, the founder of Rocket Mortgage and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, it will be home to the city’s first five-star hotel as well as luxury condos with prices expected to top $3 million. That’s nothing in New York, but almost unfathomable here a decade ago.

“You certainly can feel the optimism and hope in the city,” the mayor said. “Polling showed that 75 percent of residents believe the city is headed in the right direction. There are very few places in America that would show that.”

Back in 2006, when Detroit hosted Super Bowl XL, civic leaders, notably Roger Penske, spent millions trying to make downtown look alive, if only to avoid regional embarrassment.

That included clearing debris from empty lots near Ford Field, wrapping abandoned buildings to hide the destruction and even propping up fake storefronts so passersby might think a space was occupied.

If nothing else, that isn’t necessary this time. They are down to scraping stickers off sign posts.

Detroit is hoping America notices.