When asked how long he has been involved with property development in Detroit’s Midtown area, Bob Slattery relays a memory from when the native eastsider was a young man growing up in the city.
“It’s a funny story, my brother took me down here in 1974. He was a year ahead of me in school, and he went to Wayne State. He took me to the Wellington, which was on the corner of Cass and Willis, and he parked me out front and went into the co-op. And I was terrified. I got hurt when I was 16, so I was in a wheelchair. So I was in a car with all these strange people walking by. So five years later I owned the corner.”
So you could say that’s one way to conquer one’s fears; simply buy them out. Because once you own your fears, they aren’t quite so scary anymore. And ever since that time, as one of the Cass Corridor’s earliest developers and visionaries who saw the Midtown that it could eventually become, Slattery has been one of the key figures in the area’s transformation through his company, Midtown Development Group, Inc. But listening to Slattery recount his stories of how he got involved in the business are just as fascinating as the end result. And he has a lot of stories. Not surprisingly, some of the best tales of his experiences as a developer in the city he wasn’t willing to share on the record. But they’re really good stories.
“So when I moved down here the hookers and the drugs was going on, and it was a strange neighborhood. So I went out to Cobb’s Corner (the legendary Detroit jazz club) one day in 1979 and I was working in medical sales, and I was involved with the rehab of the Institute of Michigan, and you know when that flash of genius that happens? And I said, you know, this is for me. So it took me a couple of years to get my funds together and I bought my first home in ’81, my house and an apartment, and then in ’83, I bought another apartment – actually I bought two apartments in ’83 – so that was my start. So I put together my five-year plan, and it took me 20 years to finish the original set (of properties).”
So what did he see in Midtown – then the Cass Corridor – that made Slattery want to become a developer?
“It’s the adjacencies; you’ve got the University, you’ve got the Medical Center, that’s 16-17,000 employees right there. So how many people who work in those two institutions actually live in the neighborhood? And this is such a fine area, in terms of finite area.”
“You know, Detroit really needs a tax base, and we don’t have that many areas in Detroit that attract that. We have pocket neighborhoods. There’s probably a dozen pocket neighborhoods holding their own, but in terms of the vitality of Midtown, downtown, and the Riverfront, that’s the best chance of kickstarting. And it’s important to have higher income people because they go to the restaurants, they support local businesses, and they employ people. And that’s what we’ve got to have.”
Right now, Slattery identifies his primary market as individuals or couples – rarely with children – in their late 30s to early 40s. Although the neighborhood has improved markedly since his younger years when his brother left him sitting out front of the Wellington, Slattery says there still isn’t as much of a rush to occupy the Midtown area as some might think. Still, he’s hopeful that this will change and believes what he sees happening with the El Moore is a good sign for the future of the neighborhood.
“It’s fascinating watching the detail they’re putting in the project. I’m taking note. I really support their efforts.”