Cobo Center new name game: Detroiters suggest Louis, Parks, Franklin

By: - February 24, 2019 11:50 am

Barbara Anne Wynder with the Joe Louis statue at the Cobo Center, Feb. 23, 2019 | Ken Coleman

The announcement this week that the Cobo Convention Center would finally get a name change was widely cheered. And now it’s ushered in a spirited debate about what new moniker should be attached to the almost 60-year-old institution.

The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority (DRCFA) on Wednesday awarded the naming rights of 723,000-square-foot Cobo Center to Chemical Bank, as the Advance reported.

Gary Torgow at Cobo renaming, Feb. 20, 2019 | Ken Coleman

The conventional wisdom is that the center will have a corporate name like Chemical Bank Convention Center or TCF Convention Center. But some Detroit residents would like to see a prominent Motor City legend replace the name of Albert Cobo, Detroit’s mayor notorious for his racist policies toward African-Americans in the 1950s.

For months, Detroiters have suggested replacements They have included civil rights icon Rosa Parks, former heavyweight champion Joe Louis and recording legend Aretha Franklin.

The Rev. Dan Aldridge, an activist who moved to Detroit after college in 1965, believes that the center should be named in Louis’ honor. A 30-foot-tall statue of the boxer has sat in the center’s lobby since 1987.

Rosa Parks | Wikimedia Commons

“He’s universally loved and respected all over the world and in Detroit,” Aldridge told the Advance.

Barbara Anne Wynder, a former city of Detroit lawyer and current member of the elected Detroit Charter Revision Commission, agrees that the Cobo Center should be renamed the “Joe Louis Civic Center.”

A sports arena that sits next door to the center was named after Louis in 1979, two years before he passed away. It will be demolished soon, as Detroit now has the Little Caesars Arena. There’s also the sculpture of Louis’ fist near Hart Plaza.

However, Dan Austin, who operates and has done extensive research on Cobo, says the new name may not catch on.

“I’ll take corporate money any day; people are probably still going to call it Cobo, anyway,” he said. “Hell, I still call [DTE Energy Music Theatre] Pine Knob. It’d be nice to honor Joe Louis after the arena is torn down, but I’d rather have a park named after him or something instead.”

Cobo Center is the 17th largest convention center in the country. It hosts the annual North American International Auto Show, as well as the annual NAACP Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, an event fundraising event that routinely attracts 10,000 people each spring.

DRCFA manages operations at Cobo Center and made the naming rights selection. The new name will rest with the bank, according to DRCFA officials.

“Keep in mind, the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority controls all aspects of the facility, including what it’s called,” said Tom Wennerberg, Chemical Bank chief marketing office. “We are grateful to the authority for awarding Chemical Bank naming rights for $1.5 million a year for 22 years, money that will be invested back into the hall and the community.”

Joe Louis statue at the Cobo Center, Feb. 23, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Chemical Bank announced last year that its corporate headquarters in Midland would move into 20-story building in downtown Detroit. The bank currently has about 100 employees downtown and executive offices on Big Beaver Road in Troy.

It is the largest bank headquartered in Michigan and intends to buy Minnesota-based TCF Financial Corp. If approved, it would rename itself TCF Bank and would remain in Detroit.

“We understand the complicated emotions behind the name of the center, said Wennerberg. “That is why we are honored to be changing its name and turning the page from the past. Chemical Bank is exploring ways to honor Detroit legends within the facility.”

History of Cobo management

Up until 2009, the city of Detroit operated the convention center. Its annual budget was proposed by local administration officials and approved by the City Council, Detroit’s legislative body.

But during the Great Recession, city government had a tough time keeping parks grass cut and placing cops on the street. Detroit also was rocked by a corruption probe that revealed bribery involving a Cobo Center official and a contractor.

Ken Cockrel Jr.

So the Michigan Legislature, at the request of former Detroit Mayor Ken Cockrel Jr., stepped in and approved financing for the center. The City Council was fiercely divided on the matter. The new state law included a governance structure the featured an independent authority.

In September 2009, operational control of Cobo Center transferred to the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority under a collaborative agreement by the Legislature; city of Detroit; and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Each entity has an appointed member on the DRCFA Board.

Larry Alexander, president and CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, was appointed as board chair by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm and continues to serve in that role today.

“The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority’s selection of Chemical Bank represents the Convention Center’s strong financial future and a legislative mandate to become a self-sustaining facility by 2024, saving Michigan taxpayers millions of dollars,” Alexander said.

“As is the case with other world-class facilities that have been named in Detroit — Ford Field, Comerica Park and Little Caesars Arena — the ability to name the facility belongs to the organization that purchases that right,” he added.

Before the 2009 overhaul, the city of Detroit could have removed the Cobo name. The city has renamed landmarks before. Last year, the body renamed Chene Park Amphitheater after the late Aretha Franklin.

Similarly, the DRCFA could have removed the Cobo name, but Alexander said that “the naming rights initiative for the Convention Center has been a longtime goal of the DRCFA.

“Our fiduciary responsibility was to sell the naming rights to a corporation,” he added. “That was our process and it is now a contractual commitment.”

Who was Albert Cobo?

A longtime city treasurer, former candy store owner and Burroughs Corp. executive, Cobo was elected mayor of Detroit 70 years ago in 1949.

He defeated liberal George Edwards, a former UAW organizer who was City Council president. Cobo served in that role until suffering a fatal heart attack in September 1957.

City elections in Detroit are nonpartisan, but Cobo was a staunch Republican. He challenged Democratic Michigan Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams in 1956 and was handily defeated.

Cobo had hostile relationship with the city’s growing African-American community. He sided with white homeowners’ groups on the city’s northwest and northeast sides to prevent Blacks from moving into their neighborhoods.

He was probably best known for presiding over an eminent domain takeover of a historic section of the city that largely Black and poor known as “Black Bottom.” Only days into his tenure as mayor in January 1950, Cobo began work on his “slum clearance” plan.

“I feel that we must acquire the land in these backward sections that we must remove the buildings there from and sell the property back to private individuals for development,” he said at the time.

Cobo wanted private developers to remake Black Bottom for middle-class, taxpaying residents. He rejected available federal funds to build public housing for Blacks on both the lower east side, where Black Bottom was located, as well as other sections of the city that were largely populated by whites.  

After the local NAACP brought forth a claim, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Lederle ruled in June 1954 that Cobo’s Housing Commission had practiced racial discrimination.

“It is more important to end housing segregation than school segregation.” Lederle wrote at the time. “Children spend more time at home than at school. I am trying to make the record so final that the order may be and will be enforced. As an American, I hope no difficulties will arise.”  

The late Arthur Johnson, former Detroit NAACP executive secretary and later president, was blunt in his assessment of Cobo in his 2008 book, “Race and Remembrance: A Memoir”:

“Cobo was a racist. His supporters expected him to stand firm against the equality and encroachment of blacks. Cobo made it clear that the city’s official policy was segregation in public housing.”

So how did he come to have the convention center named in his honor?

It was actually former Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries Jr. who put forth a vision for a new civic center in November 1946.

But Cobo presided over its building. When the City-County Building groundbreaking occurred in 1952, Cobo jammed the shovel into the ground to get the ball rolling and continued to shepherd the project. But he died before it was completed in 1960.

On May 11, 1952, an editorial in the Detroit Free Press editorial called for new civic center to be named after Cobo:

“The city has an opportunity to honor one of the most outstanding public servants in its long history by naming the development after Mayor Albert E. Cobo. And why not? The change in the riverfront, making it a splendidly useful and beautiful civic improvement gained momentum during the administration of Mayor Cobo.

“… As a recognition of what he has accomplished, and a token of the affection and respect in which the people hold him, the designation of the civic center as Cobo Park, or Cobo Plaza, or something equally suitable, might be very much in order.”

Cobo Center | Ken Coleman

But while Cobo was well-known back then, there are some today who don’t have any recollection of him or his policies.

As a caller to a local radio talk show said last week, “I thought that Cobo was an acronym.”

Turning the page

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan blasted Cobo’s notorious legacy in 2017 and said he supported removing his name from the city’s convention center.

Mayor Mike Duggan at Cobo renaming, Feb. 20, 2019 | Ken Coleman

“I’m really pleased that the authority decided to do it,” Duggan told the Detroit Free Press at the time. “They [Authority] obviously have financial reasons to sell the naming rights, but it [getting rid of the Cobo name] was something that I thought was the right thing to do.”

Other public entities in Detroit have grappled naming public institutions.

In 2010, Robert Bobb, former Detroit Public Schools state-appointed emergency manager, unilaterally renamed the district’s Ethelene Crockett Vocational Center after Ben Carson. The native Detroiter and noted neurosurgeon later ran for president in 2016 and was tapped by President Donald Trump as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Barbara Anne Wynder at the Cobo Center, Feb. 23, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Several years later, LaMar Lemmons, a former state House member and current elected school board member, sought to have Carson’s name removed from the school because of his conservative politics and work for Trump, who only earned 9 percent of the Detroit vote in the 2016 election. The school district’s board is finalizing a policy to address the naming and renaming of schools and other property.

In Cincinnati, a convention center opened in 1968 as the Convention-Exposition Center. It was renamed in 1985 as the Albert B. Sabin Convention and Exposition Center after the man who discovered the polio vaccine. Twenty years ago, however, the city sold the center’s naming rights to Delta Air Lines. It’s now called Duke Energy Convention Center.

In recent years, convention centers in Atlanta; Omaha, Neb.; and Milwaukee, Wis., received new names after rights were purchased by corporate entities. That’s helped local government to fund operate and management and gives the corporate entity tremendous exposure.

Three years ago, the Cuyahoga County Council approved partnership with FirstMerit Corporation for naming rights to the Cleveland Convention Center. It’s now known as FirstMerit Convention Center of Cleveland.

And another facility in Michigan will get a name change soon.

The 32-year-old Lansing Center won’t be known as that for much longer. The Lansing Entertainment & Public Facilities Authority expects to secure at least $1.5 million under a new naming rights deal, according a recent report.

As for rebranding Cobo, the process will probably take “six or seven months,” Alexander, the DRCFA chair, said this week. But exterior signage likely will come down before that. So far, negative responses to the announcement have been muted. Most Detroiters seem ready for the change.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.