It's the question I've been asked a dozen times in the past week by everyone from the billionaire to the defense contractor to the west side liquor store owner.
Is Dan Gilbert done?
Gilbert is inarguably the singular driving force of downtown Detroit's so-called comeback. He has invested billions of dollars, and millions of copycat dollars have followed his lead. He owns a hundred properties downtown and has hundreds of millions more pledged to ongoing and future development deals.
But the more Dan sits in the shadows convalescing after his major stroke he suffered nearly six months ago, the darker the sentiment grows among the business class. After all, as Dan goes, we all go.
The last time we saw our Dear Leader was three months ago in that heavily edited video from his rehabilitation bed in Chicago. It was enough to quiet the whispers, at least for a few weeks.
Then came last week's announcement of a new innovation center downtown. That's when billionaire developer and Gilbert partner Stephen Ross let it slip: “I wish Dan was able to be with us today.”
That's when my phone started ringing. It reminded everybody.
People tell me they saw Gilbert recently at a suburban bar mitzvah. He was wheeled in, parked for 10 minutes at a table and then wheeled out by a handler.
“Not a comforting image,” I was told.
He's doing fine! (No more questions)
Gilbert's underlings tell us in press releases that his rehabilitation is moving along marvelously. It's full steam ahead. Gilbert's consigliere, Matthew P. Cullen, did not respond to my inquiry as to his progress.
It's worth noting, Gilbert's umbrella of companies are not publicly traded, have no elected board of directors or Wall Street analysts to answer to. Like all of Detroit's billionaires (except Ford), it's a cult of personality driven by the vision of one man.
So where is Dan? He has a lot to answer for.
This week, three members of Congress called for an investigation into “possible wronging” after a national – not local – media outlet reported that Gilbert used his White House influence to get his downtown holdings designated as an Opportunity Zone.
Wooing Amazon, futilely
We told you about Opportunity Zones last year, after Gilbert's plan to lure Amazon to Detroit went up in flames. It was eventually revealed that state and local governments in Michigan let Gilbert negotiate the terms, including an offer of $4 billion in public subsidies to Amazon, even though Gilbert is a private businessman and had no bestowed powers to do so. That's $4 billion with a capital B.
Opportunity Zones were created under the Trump tax law of 2017 to encourage wealthy investors to funnel development dollars into impoverished areas. Those zones in low-income Census tracts let investors take profits from stocks and other investments – such as a casino sale – and pump those profits into the opportunity zones. Any profits from ventures inside the zones can avoid federal taxes.
In short, ProPublica says Gilbert used his influence to turn the relatively wealthy downtown inside America's poorest big city intHaso a tax haven for the rich.
To which Jared Fleisher, a vice-president of Quicken Loans, fired back in a Detroit News op-ed: “The ProPublica story about Opportunity Zones is not true. I stake my name, my reputation and the reputation of my organization on that.”
Interesting, because the article comes around the same time it was reported that Quicken Loans contributed dark money to political causes and after his various companies have been hit with three-quarters of a billion dollars in federal fines and jury judgments in the past year, and that his planned “tallest skyscraper” in the state (also funded with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars) has neither the documented plans nor financing.
What happens to us?
It cannot be argued that Gilbert has breathed life into a moribund downtown. It's better looking and more vibrant than I ever remember, and we even have a trolley line (never mind that it's in the red).
But who guarantees his profit? How much welfare does a billionaire deserves? Will we ever get our money back? These are questions worth asking now, while we have a fighter's chance.
Think about it: We're still stuck on Chris Ilitch and his bait-and-switch on the hockey town that's never come to pass. He got his arena, he got our $325-million handout and we get to look at his parking lots.
At the same time, the toothless yappers keep barking about the double-cross, but those are the same miserable hounds who rolled over and played dead while the rotten deal went down years ago.
This time, it's not too late to ask the hard questions of Gilbert Inc.
The first is: Where's Dan?