Downtrodden Detroit plans a superb show for the world

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

DETROIT -- Welcome to sunny Detroit! OK, so maybe it's partly cloudy Detroit.

Either way, there's certainly one thing almost every visitor will notice -- or not notice -- upon reaching the Motor City for Super Bowl week: No snow.

Not falling from the sky, not frozen on the grass, not piled up on the side of the highway.

"Nothing out there right now," said John Wisnewski, general manager at Chandler Park Golf Course in Detroit. "It rained all day yesterday, so it's pretty wet. But it's going to be 45 degrees today. I expect some players today."

There has been, of course, a lot of hand-wringing about bringing the premiere event in American sports, one that draws more than 100,000 people to the city and 85 million more to their TVs, to Detroit.

The city had been struggling even before Ford Motor Co.'s announcement last week of up to 30,000 job cuts. Over the last 3 1/2 years, it has undertaken the monumental task of revitalizing a hurting downtown, a project that is starting to take hold, at least in pockets of downtown near the Detroit River.

"Detroiters have a pent-up demand to do well at this event," Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said. "We want to reintroduce ourselves to the world."

With the economic impact it provides and the light it shines on Detroit, the Super Bowl might, indeed, do wonders in restoring some civic pride and getting the city back on track. More than 10,000 volunteers are chipping in and almost every commercial break on local television includes an ad imploring Detroit to shine for visitors this week. The headlines in the city's two major papers on Monday: "Welcome, World," and "Detroit: The real deal!"

But real deal or not, there are few things that foster more nervousness about a northern Super Bowl -- only the third in the 40-year history of the game -- than the weather.

"We don't have a lot of snow, but if we did, Eddie Francis and I have probably got the personnel to get it up before it hits the ground," Kilpatrick said of a deal his city cut with the mayor of Windsor, Detroit's Canadian neighbor.

The dreaded nightmare

Detroit's biggest nightmare, it would seem, would be terrible weather and a repeat of the 1982 game, played in suburban Pontiac, in which heavy snows all week tangled traffic and made the entire operation a mess. Stuck in traffic, the San Francisco 49ers had to hoof it about a mile through the snow to the Silverdome on gameday.

Less of a nightmare -- but still a disappointment -- could very well be what Detroit is going through this week, which is an unusual warm spell in the middle of January.

The city spent the last two years hyping this Super Bowl as a chance to have fun in the cold weather -- embracing the realities of January in the Great Lakes region instead of trying to shirk from them.

The centerpiece of this week is an outdoors festival, the Motown Winter Blast, downtown at Campus Martius Park. It's meant to feature ice skating, dogsled racing and a huge snow slide, along with the cars and music of Motown.

All plans have to be flexible, though.

"It's melting like crazy," said Robert Preshern, who was working security in front of the fledgling slide, watching the tons of artificial snow melt away. If there's no snow by the time the Blast opens Thursday, there are plans to put wheels on the dog sleds to make them glide.

On Sunday, there were highs around 50 with rain -- not conducive to making snow or keeping it around long. On Monday, it was about 42 and breezy with the sun peaking out for good portions of the day. The rest of the week calls for highs in the 30s and 40s, with snow flurries at the most.

"It's been a very mild January," Wisnewski said.

Over the past weeks, months and years, many who follow football have asked how, exactly, could a city like Detroit end up with the big game like this? Detroit? A struggling city with a bad reputation and one that already had a chance and failed miserably with the Super Bowl in 1982.

To simplify the answer: If you build it, they will come.

This marks the third of three straight Super Bowls that have come to "nontraditional" locales, in large part because the cities and their owners were willing to spend nine figures to build, or revamp, stadiums.

* When the NFL promised Houston an expansion franchise in 1999, part of the deal was $449 million Reliant Stadium and the chance for the NFL to host a Super Bowl there. It did in 2004.

* Jacksonville has long been a pet project of the league, which surprisingly awarded that city the 30th franchise back in 1993, and even more surprisingly decided to put the Super Bowl there for last year's game. In exchange, owner Wayne Weaver and the city have reconstituted the old Gator Bowl twice -- once for the Jaguars and again for the Super Bowl -- at a total cost of around $180 million.

* Lions owner William Clay Ford had a vision in the 1990s to move the Lions from the suburbs back to downtown Detroit and bring the Super Bowl back, as well. The result was $315 million Ford Field. Roger Penske played a big role in selling the idea of Detroit and its new stadium to the NFL.

"The day after the game, in the headlines, I want to see: 'Great Game, Great City,"' Penske said.

Starting next year, the NFL will get back to basics, returning to Miami, then Phoenix, then Tampa, then Miami again.

Weather in those cities should not be a factor.

At least so far, it doesn't look like much of a factor in Motown, either.

A good thing?

Depends on who you ask.

"A lot of people in Detroit are waiting for it to snow," Penske said, "so they can show us that they really are ready."

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