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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Former Detroit Piston Dave Bing has Big Dreams for Detroit by Kortney Stringer

Dave Bing has always dreamed big.

Born to two high school dropouts, he ran pickup basketball games in his old Washington, D.C., neighborhood with the late music legend Marvin Gaye, the two boys dreaming of one day becoming professional athletes. Today, Bing is a Basketball Hall of Famer.

While supplementing his Detroit Pistons salary with a job as a manager trainee at a bank on Woodward during the off-season in the 1960s and '70s, he fancied he someday would be an entrepreneur. He now heads one of the largest African-American-owned businesses in the United States.

Now, as decay and despair threaten the city he calls home, Bing is dreaming big again -- this time for Detroit.

The chief executive officer of the Detroit-based Bing Group automotive parts company is heading two major projects that are intended to breathe life into Detroit's underdeveloped waterfront and help six neighborhoods that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has targeted for special attention.

At the same time, while his steel processing and stamping company is being battered by the decline in Michigan's auto sector, Bing is forced to contemplate the future of the business he started in Detroit.

"You have to dream," Bing said as he cruised in his Jaguar last month around the North End, one of the targeted neighborhoods and the community where his company is based. "Most businesses and investors want to make money -- they don't want to take risks. If you're looking for short-term returns, Detroit's not the place. I'm in this for the long run."

A different take on development

It's that attitude that prompted Kilpatrick's administration to approach Bing last year to begin the arduous task of trying to revitalize and redevelop some of Detroit's grittiest neighborhoods and strengthen others. It is the harder side of the mayor's cleanup plan, for which businessman Roger Penske is heading up the Clean Downtown task force.

Bing, 63, accepted the challenge and became a chair of the Next Detroit Neighborhood Initiative, a revitalization program the administration announced in December. The goal is to work with residents and businesses in six neighborhoods -- the North End, Grand River-Greenfield, Brightmoor, Osborn and Bagley communities and East English Village -- to develop plans to make them more desirable places to live, shop and locate businesses.

Bing and city officials have met with businesses, residents and community and church leaders to find out the changes needed in the neighborhoods. This year, the city aims to take such steps as adding police patrols, attracting commercial development, demolishing dilapidated housing and clearing away debris.

Kilpatrick said Bing's involvement would be key to the program's success.

"He is a dynamic businessman and an inspirational community leader with a genuine passion for uplifting our city and its people," he said. "His knowledge of business and neighborhood development will bring a unique perspective" to the initiative.

Bing, who lives in Franklin, has built several $200,000-plus homes in the depressed North End neighborhood, where his 30-acre Bing Group campus sits. He's quick to caution that rebuilding Detroit will take plenty of time.

"People are tired of waiting, but the fix won't be easy," Bing said. "What I don't want to do is start creating unrealistic expectations. You can't fix the whole city in 12 months, but rather you have to do it in pockets."

The goal: Attract wealthier people

Another pocket of the city where Bing is trying to make his mark is along Detroit's mostly industrial riverfront, where leaders are trying to attract more affluent residents.

Bing's $60-million WaterMark Detroit project is one of three condo developments chosen last year to fill sites once occupied by cement companies. The project, previously known as Chene West, is the first to reach a development agreement with the city.

Bing said construction of the buildings, which will house 112 units that include condos and town homes, is expected to begin this spring. The units are to be completed by 2009.

Bing acknowledges that the prices for the condos -- which will range from $400,000 to $1.2 million -- are out of reach for many Detroiters, a third of whom live below the poverty level. But he said attracting more affluent residents to the city will be a key to Detroit's comeback.

"You can't satisfy everybody," he said. "If you want to bring communities back, some decisions have to be made. You can't forget about poor people, but you have to have a middle class. You just can't have a city full of poor people."

Stepping up to the challenge

Bing is respected among business and civic leaders.

"He's a superb businessman and role model," said Rainy Hamilton, president and chief executive of Hamilton, an architectural firm based in Detroit's Harmonie Park area. "He's a Detroiter who supports Detroit and puts his dollars where his mouth is."

Doug Rothwell, president of the Detroit Renaissance corporate leadership group, said he always has admired Bing's work in his company and within the community. Rothwell, a former General Motors Corp. real estate executive and chief executive officer of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said Bing was one of the people who encouraged him to take his present position.

Bing "doesn't have a big staff like big companies do, so he doesn't have a lot of extra time to do other things in the community. Yet he always finds the time to do it," Rothwell said.

"He understands Detroit's issues, and he understands, from a business standpoint, how to fix some of its problems."

He faces skeptics, too.

"I'll believe it when it happens," said Edker McBurrows, a 28-year-old Detroiter who lives near the Greenfield-Grand River neighborhood targeted in the city's revitalization plan.

McBurrows, who works for a Detroit auto supplier, said the area is a skeleton of what it was when he shopped there as a youngster. "It's getting worse and worse," he said.

Bing said that although he understands why some Detroit residents are reluctant to buy into the hype, he's undaunted about the tasks ahead of him.

"They'll believe it when they see it," said Bing. "It all starts with a dream. If you prepare yourself, the sky's the limit."

This article was written by Kortney Stringer and appears in The Detroit Free Press. Kortney Stringer may be reached at

Kortney Stringer

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

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