Men, Prayer, Politics, Horses, Detroit

Fernando Palazuelo and the Packard Plant: Can He Do It?

Authors Note: An edited version of this essay currently appears on the HuffingtonPost at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nancy-kotting/fernando-palazuelo-and-th_b_4598580.html

In the mid-1990’s, myself and a hand full of Detroit-based preservationist put on the largest Historic Preservation Conference ever held in Detroit: The Michigan African American Symposium. Our goal was to bring together national, regional and local leaders from the traditional historic  preservation movement and put them in the same room with city employees, community activists, neighborhood groups, educators and interested students. As organizers, we sought to educate one another and together explore the activity of historic preservation as a social and economic tool in an urban environment.

Over four hundred individuals attended this event at Cobo Hall including then Mayor Dennis Archer and several Detroit City Council members. One of our keynote speakers was the late Erma Henderson whose reputation preceded her as the most powerful female African American politician in Detroit, a long standing progressive powerhouse of action in the city. I recall standing next to a relatively silent Mayor Archer as Ms. Henderson, his elder, started ‘doin some teachin’ shall we say.

Erma Henderson 2005

Erma Henderson 2005

As the first African American woman on Detroit’s City Council, she held the attention of several generations in that hall while she patiently, yet sternly lectured us on the importance of developing, maintaining and never losing sight of, ones vision for the future of Detroit. Her message to all of us was simple: No vision, no future. Don’t ever let go of your vision.

Noticeably absent from  this powerful 3-day conference were major real estate developers. At that time, most simply did not understand the connection between historic preservation and successful redevelopment in a city like Detroit. Fernando Palazuelo, the new owner of the Packard Plant, based on his success with historic properties in Lima, Peru, does understand and, based on all I have read about this gutsy Spaniard, I believe he is going to be successful beyond our well-guarded dreams in his goal of redeveloping the Packard for several reasons:

Fernando Palazuelo is not from Detroit.

While this will pose challenges for his efforts on many levels, I believe, in this particular instance, it will work to his advantage. He appears to bring years of experience in skillfully steering similar projects, in similar economies. This will not be the first time he entered a new city, navigated its unique terrain, adapted his plan and found success. Detroit has a history of handing even the most ambitious newcomers their backsides, shall we say, on a plate. My experiences in the city tell me that you need three very important ingredients to make it in Detroit: humility, steely tenacity and patience. Mr. Palazuelo does not strike me as a pie-eyed carpetbagger with a checkbook, he strikes me as an astute,  boots-on-the-ground soldier when it comes to working within a community, even one new to him.

Fernando Palazuelo is a Spaniard.

In my other life, I train horses and riders in the ancient art of Dressage. Google it. Two summers ago I worked with 20 spanish stallions, the four-legged kind. The stallions were easy, it was the Spanish owner that befuddled me as I saw no logic to his decision making. I sought the advice of a co-worker, a woman from his same village in Spain, as to his peculiar behavior. She smiled, shook her head and sat me down while she, woman-to-woman, explained Spanish men to me in her thick accent: “Nancy, they allow their emotions to rule them. American men suppress them in business, Spanish men use them. A Spanish man makes all of his decisions with his heart first, and then his mind, ALL decisions”.

What may seem as an illogical decision to acquire the worlds largest industrial ruin in a bankrupt city, is actually a decision that is based exactly where it should be: in the heart. In Detroit, anybody with means can come in here and write checks for building after building after building. What you can’t buy is soul. No matter how hard you try. Decisions made with the heart are decisions with the capacity to change the world, or in this case, Detroit.

Fernando Palazuelo seems to understand that whatever his life was before, with the exception of his family, it is over. His life is now the Packard Plant.

Packard Plant 1940's

Packard Plant 1940’s

For eleven years of my life I was partner through marriage in running Detroit’s alternative newsweekly, the MetroTimes. As the owners, we were the bottom line 24/7 on all levels. Running any business in the city of Detroit, growing a business in Detroit, Americas most rugged urban core, is not a job, it is a life. It takes a commitment that goes far beyond anything you’ve ever done. Any and all aspects of our life were sublimated to the business, our employees, our readers and the vision and mission of our work. Mr. Palazuelo has demonstrated an understanding of this level of commitment and is poised to “walk his talk” by taking up residence in his project, something that will likely endear him to his fellow Detroiters faster than anything else he could do. We don’t do ‘talk’ in Detroit, we do ‘walk’.

Fernando Palazuelo understands the role of story, of history in creating a compelling redevelopment project. 

In Detroit, we have to sell into our strengths and those strengths are not necessarily the reasons outside investors come into projects in urban centers. Remarkably, Mr Palazuelo has recognized what we all know in our hearts to be true: What we have is unique and unlike any city in the world right now. Our grit, our history, our architectural resources, our current economic environment, are one of a kind. Detroit is the ‘perfect storm’ of potential.

1956 Packard

1956 Packard

Our industrial flagship, the Packard, is connected to what came before, reflects reality now and it has the potential to define the future in architectural terms, a future that respectfully brings our past right along with it. It is basic human nature to want to be part of a resurrection story, to want to re-write a history with a golden pen and a happy ending.

In my opinion, the successful redevelopment of the Packard, the story of the re-development of the Packard, has the power to demonstrate to the world exactly what it is we do best: overcome our fate against all odds, work hard, be creative and never, ever, give up. If it takes a Spaniard from Peru to lead on this one, so be it.

Money doesn’t follow money, it follows vision. Erma Henderson knew that. We in Detroit know that. Apparently, so does Fernando Palazuelo.

© 2014 Nancy Kotting  Reproduction by Permission Only   All Rights Reserved


One comment on “Fernando Palazuelo and the Packard Plant: Can He Do It?

  1. JocTheWriter
    January 17, 2014

    He sounds like a rare soul. I hope the best for both him and the plant.

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