"I don't think that the bankruptcy factored into it," he says. "Is it going to deter somebody's desire to attend the auto this year? ... The extent that Detroit rises to the occasion (says) that bankruptcy doesn't mean 'closed to business.'"
Still, the throng of global journalists can't help but venture beyond Detroit's relatively booming downtown and chronicle the abandonment and blight that lurks on many city streets and former factory sites. The backdrop of bankruptcy can play a role in how the city is portrayed to the world, even if most of those images predate the city's bankruptcy filing in July.
Detroit dodged one hit to its economy and reputation: A big snow storm and subsequent blast of Arctic air that bought area travel to a near halt luckily blew in a week before the auto show. The weather should be relatively balmy next week. The auto show in 1999 was marred by a heavy snow that clogged roads nearly paralyzed the Detroit area at ShowTime, prompting heavy criticism of the city for not being prepared.
"It was horrible," Sowerby says, adding he recalls telling media outlets at the time, "I'm downtown at the event and I'm watching dollars get sucked out of the city."
New Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hopes to see currency flowing the other way this year. He expects the journalists and public to see a Detroit trying to get back on its feet. The white mayor elected in a city that's 80 percent black is managing expectations for a mess he just inherited, but plans to tackle with skills honed as a hospital executive and former prosecutor.
"The real Detroit has a long way to go. There's no doubt there are a lot of great things happening, but we have not translated the success that people will see here into services for people living in the neighborhood. And that's my job," he says. "But that doesn't stop everybody from enjoying the good things that are happening, like the auto show."
Michigan economist Patrick Anderson predicts the bankruptcy won't upstage the auto show, and might prove to be a positive development from a visitor's perspective. City restructuring plans also include planned investments in some basic services, including blight removal, updating information technology and other "quality of life" improvements. Before the bankruptcy, a regional authority that manages Cobo for the city launched a major upgrade and expansion of the venue in large part to keep the auto show from bolting.
"I think they may actually see more streetlights working, a better Cobo Center than they've ever seen, and more optimism about Detroit than they've seen in decades," he says. "That, combined with the rejuvenating prospects of Ford and GM, is going to make this a very interesting auto show for the international press."
Even more than a mile down the river from Cobo Center, Andrews on the Corner owner Tom Woolsey says he gets extra business during the auto show. He's noticed a "remarkable" turnaround at his restaurant-bar since about mid-2012, as automakers have recovered, events have grown along a more pedestrian-friendly riverfront and people even started moving downtown.
"The economy isn't what they expected it to be but it's up and moving in the right direction," says Woolsey, whose grandfather opened Andrews in 1918. "The city, I think, is going to do much better now that it's hit bottom."
Anderson says an annual event like the auto show will play an important role in reviving Detroit.
"In order to build a world-class economic city, you need to have reasons for people to come every year. The auto show is a world-class reason to come to Detroit every year," he says.
"Given my choice, I'd much rather have that auto show every year than a Super Bowl every decade."
Follow Jeff Karoub on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeffkaroub, Associated Press reporters Mike Householder and Tom Krisher contributed to this report.
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