Dan Gilbert has meant more to the fate of a big American city in the modern era than just about anyone else, arguably. So it’s understandable that Detroiters are being heartened by the latest reports that the billionaire founder and chairman of Quicken Loans — who has invested nearly $6 billion alone in to Detroit over the last several years — is “improving by the hour” from a stroke he suffered at a local hospital on Sunday.
The biggest booster of the Motor City is awake and steadily getting better, Jay Farner, the CEO of Quicken Loans, told local journalists on Tuesday as Farner threw himself into the gap on behalf of his boss. The 57-year-old Gilbert started feeling poorly on Saturday and decided to go to Beaumont Hospital in suburban Royal Oak. When he subsequently suffered a stroke on Sunday morning, he did so amid the best medical attention, poised for the occurrence.
Even his lieutenants’ jumbled schedule this week, in picking up for their boss, partly reflected the breadth and depth of Gilbert’s achievements and ambitions. Quicken Loans Vice Chairman Bill Emerson had to step in for Gilbert to provide a keynote speech on Wednesday at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Michigan’s annual equivalent of Davos, being held this week on Mackinac Island. And Farner on Tuesday was fielding questions about the upcoming Rocket Mortgage Classic, a favorite project of Gilbert’s in which he was able to land a commitment for the first PGA golf tournament that will be held inside the City of Detroit since 2009.
Gilbert kick-started the long-awaited rejuvenation of Detroit by moving his Quicken Loans offices from the suburbs to downtown several years ago and then followed that up by investing hundreds of millions of dollars behind the move. Now his umbrella organization called Rock Ventures oversees Gilbert’s hundreds of real estate investments and other business ventures from a sprawling nexus of buildings on Woodward Avenue, adjacent to the city’s glittering new shopping, sports, entertainment and residential district.
Local and state governments have helped grease Detroit’s recovery since its 2013 bankruptcy, but Gilbert became a private-capital force that overwhelmed all other efforts – and helped bring in more investments by others such as the Ilitch family, who own the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, and the Ford family, who along with Ford Motor are refurbishing an ancient mid-town train station to become the headquarters of the company’s digital-tech enterprises.
Gilbert also has become an important figure in investment in Cleveland, where among his holdings he owns the Cleveland Cavaliers of the National Basketball Association.
While Rock Ventures executives have reassured Detroiters that their corporate operations will continue as normal while Gilbert recovers, his health will play into important questions related to the city’s ongoing recovery. For example, Gilbert is constructing what will be Detroit’s tallest building – outstretching even the iconic Renaissance Center – on the site of the old, treasured J.L. Hudson Department Store on Woodward. It’s a personal passion of Gilbert to complete the tower, which certainly will symbolize not only the Motor City’s actual economic renaissance but also his huge imprint on the city’s fate.
Meanwhile, the poignancy many Detroiters feel about Gilbert’s health also reflects their personal feelings about him and his devotion to their city. Many know that among Gilbert’s other personal challenges is his family’s continued fight for the health of his oldest son, who was born with neurofibromatosis, a rare genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow in nerves throughout his body. Gilbert and his wife, Jennifer, have pledged $64 million to research on a cure for the disease.