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Metro Detroit

Published January 22, 2013

With its largest audience, Cobo provides sneak peek of expansion

» click to enlarge «
A sign welcomes visitors to the 2013 North American International Auto Show near the newly opened glass atrium inside Cobo Center. The center’s management opened the atrium as a preview to the $299 million convention center expansion to be completed in 2014.

DETROIT — Taking a break from the endless string of press conferences during last week’s media preview of the 2013 North American International Auto Show, visitors from around the world found solace in the Cobo Center’s new glass atrium.

There, the Detroit River, the Windsor skyline and the occasionally passing Detroit People Mover greeted reporters from around the world as they rested on the large staircase leading to Cobo’s main concourse.

“It’s incredible where they’re headed with this,” said Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who was among the thousands who visited the center Jan. 14 and 15 during the media preview.

He likened Detroit’s convention center to Lake St. Clair and other sites that are of importance to metro Detroit. “These are assets to the region,” Hackel said. “And when it comes to Cobo, it’s a regional asset that was in much need of expansion.”

The Cobo Center is undergoing a $299 million upgrade and expansion that is not scheduled for completion until next year. But the convention center’s management provided a narrow preview of the view that the entire south side of Cobo will offer when it decided to open the glass atrium for the auto show, which is expected to draw 750,000 visitors this year.

“We’re changing the orientation of the building toward the river,” said Thom Connors, the regional vice president and general manager of the center. “It takes advantage of a natural asset that’s attractive to potential clients.”

The rebirth of the center came after state lawmakers formed the five-member Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority and coincides with major public and private investments that have brought workers and visitors to downtown Detroit.

“People want to be where people are,” Connors said. “And that wasn’t the case five years ago (in Detroit). That’s changed.”

In Connors’ office is a souvenir plate from the opening of the convention center in 1961. “The world’s largest convention center,” the plate proclaims. Whether that was civic hype or truth, Connors isn’t sure, but it was far from that more than three years ago, when even NAIAS was threatening to move its convention from there if the place didn’t undergo repairs. Connors said when the project is complete, Cobo Center will be in the top 25 of the largest convention centers in the world.

The cylinder-shaped arena, known for being the former home of the Detroit Pistons and where musicians such as Bob Seger and Jimi Hendrix played, will be converted to a 40,000 square-foot ballroom. An LED sign with advertisements and announcements will be constructed on the east side of the building.

For Hackel, the exterior design will be a selling point for Cobo, in itself.

“Before, it was just a convention center in a warehouse,” Hackel said.

The atrium is only a fragment of the project, but it provided a glimpse to the Cobo Center’s largest audience of a convention center’s potential turnaround.

Connors called it “the light at the end of the tunnel, which means there really is change going on at Cobo.”

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