As the economies of two great Midwestern cities cratered, Dan Gilbert emerged not just unscathed, but stronger, richer, more powerful. At the center of the billionaire's empire, of course, is Quicken Loans, the company he founded that has risen from the ashes of the 2007 housing market collapse.
The tentacles of Gilbert's riches reach out across the Rust Belt in veins that touch just about every sector of the economy, as you're well aware. In Cleveland, he has the Cavs, newly anointed the next champions of the NBA after Gilbert's wooing of LeBron back to the shores of Lake Erie. And the Horseshoe Casino, and Bizdom U, and a 300-person-plus downtown office of Quicken Loans, headquartered in Detroit.
Back in Michigan, where the 52-year-old makes his home in the Oakland County village of Franklin, his influence is far greater. Gilbert has ushered in a remarkable turnaround for Detroit's quiet downtown, buying some 60 buildings bustling with some 12,000 employees, more than 2,500 of whom are residents of Detroit proper, feeding much needed income tax into the coffers of the bankrupt city of 680,000. The Detroit metro area is also home to dozens of other companies Gilbert has a stake in, including Bedrock Real Estate Services, Fathead and the Greektown Casino.
The national spotlight has shone warmly on Gilbert's investments, especially in Detroit where sentiments root for a municipal nightmare of an underdog to undergo the sort of turnaround of which everyone dreams. Politics, for example, have appeared to make that an easy call: Thanks to Michigan's Democratic then-governor Jennifer Granholm, the state and city agreed to cough up to $200 million in tax incentives over two decades to woo Gilbert's enterprise. Though many forget, Gilbert dangled the prospect of moving Quicken HQ to Cleveland, before conceding to the Plain Dealer that it's "awfully hard to move 3,500 people."
Yet rarely do we see a glimpse of skepticism, of worry that Gilbert is less savior than rat real estate king, of concern whether what's good for Gilbert is really good for Cleveland or Detroit.
Questioning Gilbert's good intentions was a point writer Mark Binelli raised in the New York Times back in February 2013, before Michigan appointed an emergency manager in Detroit and officials buckled and filed for municipal bankruptcy.
"Detroiters who are worried about ceding local power to Michigan's Republican governor shouldn't forget the ways in which power has already been ceded to an unelected oligarchy, whose members might, no matter how ostensibly well intentioned, possess questionable ideas about urban renewal," Binelli wrote.
There's no question Gilbert's profile has risen due to his successful efforts in bringing businesses into downtown. But it also has been aided and abetted by an adoring public, one who wants to see Detroit thrive like it did when the auto industry still reigned, seemingly by any means necessary, and one in Cleveland who shouts rah-rahs from every street corner at any semblance of downtown development, even if it is a casino.
With such a widespread presence, it becomes easier to see why some have wondered aloud if local media outlets themselves can maintain a healthy level of skepticism of Gilbert's efforts. Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Anna Clark noted that "local coverage [in Detroit] of Gilbert reveals some solidly informative reporting, some glaring gaps, and the occasional cringe-worthy moment."
One of those glaring gaps, for instance, is what connection Quicken had with the housing crisis of 2007. When questions have been raised, the company has vehemently downplayed any role, bristling at any slight possibility that Quicken's well-respected name could take a hit.
Gilbert pushes back against any allegation by painting Quicken as one of the good guys of the industry, a lender that didn't dabble in the type of risky loans and bad practices that eventually generated economic catastrophe, especially in Cleveland and Detroit. Ohio in total had some 100,000 vacant properties in 2013, with 26,000 in Cuyahoga County and 16,000 in Cleveland. The 2013 rate of 9.5 percent of Northeast Ohioans 90 days delinquent or in foreclosure was among the highest in the country.
In the wake of the industry's implosion, Quicken emerged unscarred. Since the mortgage crisis dissipated, Gilbert has amassed an even larger fortune and the biggest stake — and subsequently, clout — in the direction of how Detroit and Cleveland seek to rebuild.
While doing so, the notion that Quicken escaped the foreclosure crisis without any stains on the company's record has been virtually accepted by the public.
Reports and profiles of Gilbert attribute Quicken's escape from the economic collapse to business: that it was a lender who only commingled with safe practices and products.
But lawsuits, federal settlements and records, and interviews with experts suggest a conflicting perspective: It's not that Quicken wasn't hurt by the foreclosure crisis because it avoided risky loans; it wasn't hurt because it passed the risk off to others as soon as the loans were made.
The Gilbert Reaction
First, a note on how Dan Gilbert reacts to media criticism:
Back in early September, Plain Dealer sports columnist Bill Livingston was a guest on Tony Kornheiser's radio show in Washington D.C. on ESPN 980. In the midst of a wide-ranging conversation on Cleveland sports — Johnny Manziel! LeBron's coming back! — the topic of Dan Gilbert came up and Livingston didn't hold back his feelings while touching on Gilbert's infamous letter and more.
"I could understand playing to his base," Livingston said. "But this is not the first time that he had released statements like this that weren't pretty... They were sent out late at night, and draw some connotations from that if you will."
He continued, leaving the vagaries behind.
"He can have a bit of a hair trigger," he said. "He can become influenced by all the things that a late night would engender. I think probably alcohol probably played a part of it, just to come out with it. It's just suppositional on my part, but he's sent out messages like this before, to Plain Dealer people on the casino issue, that were over the top."
Livingston was speaking the truth, as three media sources have told Scene over the years, describing similar interactions with Gilbert and worse. The billionaire can unleash torrents of spite when reporters question his decisions, and this time he went straight to Livingston's bosses at the Plain Dealer with his complaints. They, in turn, would tell Livingston to write a letter of apology to Gilbert, a sanctioned snipping of one of the few who dare call Gilbert to the carpet.
Touchy on the Cavs, and as Livingston said, touchy on the casino.
Back in 2009, Gilbert scammed Ohioans into voting for one of the most lopsided casino deals in the country. A central tenant of Gilbert's proposal was a $600 million casino overlooking the Cuyahoga River. Once the keys that unlocked the gate to the glorious forest of never-ending money trees were handed over, Gilbert announced the Horseshoe Casino in Cleveland would be housed in the old Higbee Building, with phase 2, the one promised to voters, coming later down the line.
Five years later, phase 2 is exactly where it was then.
The Northeast Ohio Media Group's Brent Larkin penned a September 2014 column calling out Gilbert's failure to complete phase 2 yet again, and the numbers were startling and Larkin's sword sharp. The voter push promised 34,000 jobs. The reality: 10,600 temporary jobs and 4,844 full time.
"Just days before hoodwinking voters in 2009," Larkin wrote, "Gilbert sent vile emails to top Plain Dealer executives after the newspaper ran a legitimate story reporting Gilbert had been arrested on gambling charges while a student at Michigan State University.
"In May 2013, [Gilbert] tweeted that I was a yellow journalist for having the audacity to suggest he hadn't kept his word to voters, adding 'more to be revealed in the months ahead' about the new casino.
"Seventeen of those months later, we're still waiting.
"Instead of details about that new casino, we've gotten a proposed park with a cheesy sculpture on a postage-stamp-sized parcel of land near Gilbert's downtown casino."
That is a side of Daniel Gilbert, founder of online lending giant Quicken Loans, the public doesn't hear about too often.
The full-throttled response from Dan Gilbert isn't a surprise, however, to one employee of Quicken Loans. As he put it, it's clear Quicken employs a clipping service to keep tabs on media reports about the company. And there have been concerns about employees speaking with media outlets.
After a colleague appeared in a report on the Albert — a Detroit-area redevelopment of luxury lofts that resulted in the displacement of a number of low-income residents — "with a fair and, admittedly, dissenting opinion," a company meeting was called to discuss media relations, the employee told Scene.
In essence, the employee says, the thrust of the meeting was that "when speaking to media ... try to not necessarily shed a poor light on the progress that's being made."