When accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried unsuccessfully to blow up a jet destined for Detroit on Christmas Day, it made the city the focal point for one of the year’s scariest stories. Many in Motown must have wondered, why us? Detroit has been handed more than its fair share of chilling news in recent years—though mostly of the economic variety. The bankruptcy filings of two of the former “Big Three” Detroit automakers last year capped off decades of industrial decline. Unemployment is soaring, and downtown office towers now sit ominously vacant. But is there a silver lining here for the hard-luck city?
If Abdulmutallab’s trial is held in Detroit, as many anticipate, it could ultimately give the local economy a badly needed shot in the arm. That’s because it promises to be a long affair that draws a mob of U.S. and foreign media—not to mention deep-pocketed lawyers—to the U.S. District Court in downtown Detroit, where they will stay in local hotels, eat in local restaurants, and perhaps shop in local stores. Tourist experts say short conferences of even a few hundred people can inject hundreds of thousands of dollars into local economies; the Detroit auto show is estimated to pump $320 million into the region each year, despite running for just two weeks. The debate about whether to move the bigger Sept. 11 attacks trials out of New York City because of concerns about soaring security costs and local disruptions highlights the impact such high-profile events can have on local communities.
In the heyday of the U.S. auto industry, Detroit grew to become the country’s fourth-largest city with a population over 1.8 million. But a flight to the suburbs that picked up speed after the riot of 1967, coupled with the falling fortunes of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, left it with just over 900,000 residents. While the trial of an alleged terrorist is not going to reverse that trend, it could help provide a temporary financial lift for a city that sorely needs a little bit of good news.