Detroit Regional Chamber > Chamber > NFL Draft ‘Should Have a Lasting Impact’ on Detroit. Here’s How the City is Preparing

NFL Draft ‘Should Have a Lasting Impact’ on Detroit. Here’s How the City is Preparing

February 12, 2024

Detroit News
Sarah Rahal and Myesha Johnson
Photo Credit: John T. Greilick, Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan remembers working on Roger Penske’s Super Bowl committee in 2006 when preparations for Detroit to host the NFL’s championship game included painting the empty storefronts on Woodward Avenue, replacing boards with new glass windows and adding fake displays “thinking out-of-town visitors wouldn’t know they weren’t real companies.”

With the city under then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick facing a budget deficit of up to $30 million, Penske, the entrepreneur and auto racing team owner, spent $10 million on parties, festivals and sports clinics. At a time when nine of 30 city rec centers had been closed and the police mounted unit laid off, guided tours showed off Detroit’s “bright sides” and watch parties were hosted at homeless shelters to clear an estimated 13,000 unhoused people from the streets.

Now, with Detroit set to host the NFL Draft in less than 80 days, the city has undergone a dramatic transformation since 2006. Homicides and unemployment are down, once-vacant hotels have come back to life, and downtown is filled with stores and trendy restaurants. Detroit’s national image two decades ago as a city of “ruin porn” has been replaced by footage of a gleaming skyline that was broadcast during the Lions’ two playoff games at Ford Field last month.

“Roger and I have had the chance to go down Woodward together and now all of those empty storefronts are all filled with businesses, crowds on the street, nights and weekends … this is what a real city is, and I never lose sight of what it was like,” Duggan said. “We have been focused on the draft for the past year to reintroduce Detroit to America.”

It’s a reintroduction that is expected to bring “hundreds of thousands” of people to Metro Detroit with an economic impact “in the hundreds of millions,” according to Claude Molinari, president and CEO of Visit Detroit. With so much at stake, city officials and planners say they are sparing no effort on infrastructure upgrades, beautification, and neighborhood outreach to lure all residents to a sparkling downtown for the NFL Draft.

The draft runs from April 25-27 around Campus Martius Park, where the stage will be stationed near the Monroe Street Midway, and Hart Plaza, where family-friendly festivities and photo opportunities with the Lombardi Trophy are expected to be held.

The majority of events have not yet been organized and won’t be until after this weekend’s Super Bowl. However, the city is ramping up its efforts, and some local businesses are expanding in preparation for an influx of visitors.

Detroit’s Public Works Department and the Downtown Detroit Partnership spent January working on sidewalk repairs, paving improvements, upgrading traffic lights and painting 600 flag poles. They’re upgrading the free Wi-Fi and bandwidth in Campus Martius to accommodate an estimated 400,000 to nearly 1 million people.

“This is going to be a huge event for Detroit and Michigan,” said Molinari, who also oversees the Detroit Sports Commission, which is spearheading the event. “This is a free event, which makes it more accessible for everyone.”

Residents may notice downtown’s new garden beds and treescapes, spruced-up storefronts, the revival of Hart Plaza’s Dodge Fountain, dozens of new art installations and jaw-dropping signage with letters 12 feet tall.

“This is a three-day event, but we should have a lasting impact that this delivers to the city for year-round use and enjoyment,” said David Cowan, chief public spaces officer at the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

Along the freeways, the city planted hundreds of trees and shrubs and its demolition department has ramped up efforts to remove blight and is looking to increase trash removal services. The city has also upgraded 30 privately owned parking lots and provided grants to parking lot owners “so those ugly yellow chains won’t be across their lots but rather aesthetically beautiful fencing,” Duggan said.

Coming soon: Murals, signs, big cleats

In the next two months, new signs will be installed directing people into the city.

The main sign will read “DETROIT” in 12-foot-tall letters on Interstate 94 eastbound between Central and Cecil avenues. “So when they’re coming from the airport, you’ll see what looks to be like a Hollywood sign that says Detroit,” said Jessica Parker, Detroit’s deputy chief operations officer. The ground-level sign along the service drive will be permanent, with lights and flowers around each letter.

“The work downtown was going to happen anyway,” she added. “But due to the timing and everything aligning right now, things are getting done, and this is our time to get excited.”

Duggan’s administration has focused on a “Blight to Beauty” campaign for years, mainly focusing on the demolition of abandoned homes along the freeways, painting grand murals on building exteriors and promoting elaborate art installations on vacant land.

Work on more murals will be in motion by March. Through the City Walls program, Detroit has contracted artists to paint murals at five People Mover stations that will showcase Detroit’s sports history, including championship moments from the Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons.

City Walls is also commissioning local artists and charities on an art installation dubbed DCLEATED. Twenty fabricated colossal football cleats will be painted by Detroit artists and are linked to Detroit-based causes, nonprofits or charities of the artist’s choice. The cleats, each 5 foot, 7 inches tall and 3 feet wide, will be displayed during April in downtown hotels, at City Hall, and at Detroit Metro Airport and City Airport.

New signage will also be installed ahead of the draft, including “way finders” to help visitors get around from the east to west sides of the city. Visit Detroit will install more than 770 banners around Ford Field on Woodward Avenue, Jefferson Avenue, Washington Boulevard and Michigan Avenue by Visit Detroit.

Measuring impact

Judging from the last two cities to host the NFL Draft, Detroit can expect the event to pump tens of millions of dollars into the region’s economy, aided by the city’s location within 300 miles of six other NFL cities.

According to data from convention officials in Kansas City, last year’s draft there produced an economic impact of $164.3 million, including $108.8 million in direct spending and $55.5 million in induced/indirect impact. Total attendance was around 312,000.

The 2021 draft in Cleveland pumped an estimated $42 million into the Ohio city’s economy, drew more than 160,000 people and was viewed by “an average audience of 6.1 million viewers,” according to the NFL.

Tyler Theile, an analyst and chief operating officer at Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group, said they’re measuring the impact of the Detroit draft based on the number of attendees and money visitors spend on lodging, food and retail purchases. She predicts higher spending than Kansas City’s draft, citing excitement about the Lions’ playoff run.

“There’s the core indirect impact, which is the fact that when the dollar is spent due to an event, and it’s a net new dollar, it doesn’t stop there. It’s spent and re-spent,” she said. “Some of those second and third cycles of that dollar are still in the local economy, so we will include some of that in our impact analysis, but what we won’t include is the harder to quantify much further beyond … like national broadcasting rights, community impacts, quantity of visitors that maybe inspired via the TV or their visit to come back again. Those benefits are certainly there.”

Businesses brace for impact

Mootz Pizzeria + Bar is undergoing a 2,100-square-foot expansion into the space next door to the restaurant on Library Street in downtown Detroit. The new space, named Bar Mootz, will expand the restaurant’s capacity by bringing additional bar seating, patio and private event space ahead of the draft.

“We were receiving so many requests for events, whether people wanted to rent the whole restaurant out or have a wedding shower … and we just didn’t have the capability to shut the whole restaurant down,” said Lisa Walters, the restaurant’s operating partner. “That’s where this idea was born, and then the NFL Draft was awarded, so it was icing on the cake for us.”

It’s set to open in late March this year ― right ahead of the NFL Draft ― and can accommodate up to 50 people between the new bar and patio, which Walter Gregorio, the restaurant’s operating manager, said will aid them in servicing the large crowds expected during the draft weekend.

“The amount of people coming to the draft will be three or four times more than the biggest event we had in town, so being able to accommodate as many as we can is the goal,” Gregorio said.

Meanwhile in Midtown, Elias Khalil, co-owner of La Feria + Cata Vino, said the city is being intentional about providing minority-owned businesses the opportunity to reap the benefits.

“I’m really excited about that opportunity because what that does is it increases our exposure and our visibility so that if we score big with that, we could have a lot more opportunity with some of the major corporations that are headquartered here like Ford, General Motors and the whole Rocket Mortgage family of businesses,” Khalil said.

In La Feria’s 10 years in business, Khalil has seen some longstanding businesses close due to rising rental rates, so he feels the pressure to perform.

“At the end of the day, the underlying goal is to make sure that the draft benefits small businesses, not just the corporation that’s putting on the event. If we actually reap the benefit of having this event in town, then it helps everyday Detroiters … because minority-owned businesses typically are not at the table, so they’re giving us a shot; we better show up with our best.”

Involving the neighborhoods

The city’s Civil Rights and Inclusion Office is hosting certification fairs for minority and women-based businesses where they can learn how to contract with the city to fill the need for draft vendors.

The city has also kicked off its “On the Clock” tour, which it’s calling a pre-draft activation, with 11 events in Detroit neighborhoods. They’re working with the Lions and Detroit Public Schools Community District for the draft fests, which will feature Visit Detroit’s mobile visitor center, the D-Rover, which has been temporarily rebranded as the Draft Rover.

“We’re going to activate this community across all the neighborhoods so this is not going to be a draft celebration confined just to the stretch of downtown,” Duggan said.

Two have already happened and nine more are planned. Here’s a list:

Date Place Time
Feb. 10 Crowell Recreation Center (District 1) 1-5 p.m.
Feb. 17 Northwest Activities Center (District 4) 1-5 p.m.
Feb. 24 Heilmann Recreation Center (District 3) 1-5 p.m.
March 2 A.B. Ford Center (District 4) 1-5 p.m.
March 9 Butzel Family Center (District 5) 1-5 p.m.
March 16 Patton Recreation Center (District 6) 1-5 p.m.
March 30 Crowell Recreation Center (District 1)            Easter Fun Fest 1-5 p.m.
April 13 Lasky Recreation Center (District 3)             Draft Fest 1-5 p.m.

Looking past the draft

Detroit learned two years ago it would host the 2024 NFL Draft, three years after it submitted its bid to the league, said Cowan, the chief spaces officer for the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

Cowan said they partnered with Visit Detroit and the Sports Commission to create an enticing bid of visuals and renderings, analyzing capacity, and determining where major assets could be placed within the Campus Martius district. Also involved: city officials, the Lions, Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Detroit Police Department, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and multiple businesses, including DTE Energy and Bedrock.

“The partners are coming together on projects, not just for the draft, but are collaborating in ways that are beneficial to our region and make us a formidable team for future events and future projects,” Cowan said.

Among those events: the NCAA basketball Final Four games in 2027.

Detroit needs to execute the draft perfectly, Duggan said, to ensure the city has future national event opportunities.

“The only thing we can’t control is the weather,” he said. “And then, the only thing we need is a hotel attached to a convention center. That’s in the process right now with the Water Square Hotel proposal. If we can put those together, Detroit could see an economic boom for years.