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Testing boom in Detroit region

While at Novi for Automotive Testing Expo North America, you can enjoy some of the Motor City region’s attractions. Or even stay rather longer…


When, in March 2009, Time magazine described Detroit as “an icon of the failed American city”, the city fathers and industry chiefs must have rolled their eyes in disbelief. For although the historic Michigan city – epicenter of the world automotive sector – had suffered enormously in the wake of the global economic slump, the resolve to recover from even near-fatal events is an integral part of Detroiters’ DNA. After all, Detroit’s motto, coined in 1827 to memorialize a devastating fire, translates from the Latin as, “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”

That motto still holds good, says Ben Erulkar, senior vice president of economic development for the Detroit Regional Chamber. “The auto industry sector has rebounded from the body-blows of 2007 through 2010 by doing smart things at all levels. I think we should reword that motto by saying that Detroit has arisen, and continues to rise, from the ashes.

“There are 882 car companies and suppliers in the Detroit area, and 1,408 in the State of Michigan. Even with all that has happened over the past four years, Detroit remains the epicenter of the global automotive sector. One in four of the automotive manufacturing facilities in the US is in the State of Michigan, and there are just hundreds of suppliers. In addition to those who are manufacturing or supplying, there are 248 sales and R&D facilities.”

Every one of the world’s largest auto makers is represented in Detroit, he points out. “As well as the Detroit Three – General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler – Toyota, Nissan, and Honda all have research facilities in Detroit. There are many independent centers too.”

One of the independents promoting its facilities and availability is Michigan International Speedway, which is not only a motorsport venue but is also making a big push to let everyone know that it has a test track, various laboratories, conference rooms, and analysis rooms, all available on a contract basis.

Erulkar say one of the main reasons why automotive sector industries should be looking at Detroit is its pre-eminence as a text-book, state-of-the-art cluster of innovation and technical expertise. “I’m new to this region and have been absolutely stunned at the level of technical expertise and commitment in the cluster. I recently had dinner with a representative from Deutz, the German diesel engine manufacturer. He had a number of orders to fulfil and had no problem contacting and signing up with major suppliers.

“The level of technical expertise, in terms of the sheer amount of research and development that goes on around here, is a huge attraction. Another is the level of human talent in Michigan. It has a greater concentration of engineers than any other region of the country – 36 per 1,000 head of population. That’s a source of human talent that you cannot overlook.

“We have a total workforce of more than 240,000 professionals, working in more than 3,000 advanced manufacturing businesses in Michigan. So it’s not just automotive, but the spin-offs too that have produced this vast pool of human talent. The state is rated seventh in terms of the number of patents registered.

“Grants and subsidies for investors wanting to build premises in the region are available from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. In addition, each county in the state has a number of incentives, mostly surrounding the purchase of land. Given what’s happened in the real estate market in the US, land is readily available. Prime location land and buildings are plentiful and available at great value right now.”

As an illustration of the passion Detroiters have to emerge from recession, Erulkar cites the head of an IT company that is expanding in the region. He has started a campaign – Outsource to Detroit – to overcome the poor image that the city has unfairly acquired following the economic slump’s impact on the dominant auto industry.

For those who decide to invest in Detroit, finding skilled and highly educated workers won’t be a problem, says Erulkar. “In the south-east region of Michigan you’ve got the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and also Wayne State University. Two of those are world-class and world-renowned, and Wayne State is also a research university. All told, Michigan colleges and universities graduate more than 6,000 engineers and engineering technicians every year. That ranks Michigan third in the country for engineering degrees conferred. It’s also second for degrees conferred for emerging logistics.”

So what’s it like to live in Detroit? “If you like the arts, you’re in luck,” Erulkar says. “The Detroit Institute of the Arts is the sixth-largest fine arts museum in the country. If you like nature and enjoy outdoor activities, you are in luck – especially if you like water. The Detroit River runs right through the city and into Lake St Clair, which is five to ten minutes’ drive north of Detroit. The State of Michigan is one of the best places for nature that I’ve ever been – it’s so bountiful. If you like sports, Detroit is excellent for baseball, ice hockey, football, and basketball. Detroit will accommodate just about any interest and, despite unfairly gaining an image of not being a place with good food, good restaurants and food markets just abound in the downtown area.”

For Expo visitors with some spare time, Erulkar recommends the Henry Ford Museum. “Novi to Dearborn is only about 20 minutes’ spin down the highway and the Henry Ford is an American museum of innovation – that’s the easiest way to describe it. Henry Ford created it in 1927 and it details how innovation has driven not only the auto sector, but also American society in general. It has recreated early 20th-century houses, villages, factories, and churches that provide a great snapshot of the role that innovation has played in US history and development.”

In Detroit, Erulkar suggests a walk along the Detroit River. The downtown waterfront is, he says, at the heart of the city’s redevelopment. And for something closer to the Expo, Novi’s excellent shopping centers and restaurants offer something to suit every taste: “Fountain Walk shopping center in Novi has some of the best shopping around these parts.”


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