I’ve met plenty of people who are extremely passionate about the city of Detroit. People who have seen the city at its best and have shown their loyalty during the tough times. People who relish in the city’s rich history, but also welcome new changes with open arms. But, after sitting down with Leland Bassett of Bassett & Bassett Communication Managers and Counselors last week, I realized that this man is on a level of Detroit pride that’s all his own. The communications professional came to Detroit 42 years ago with his wife, Tina, and they haven’t left since.
LB: Detroit was Oz. The great hill. The big city. I was born in Washington, D.C., but moved to Jackson at a young age and my father was elected as a state representative in the Michigan House of Representatives. As my father became more senior in the legislature, we began to travel more around the state of Michigan. Being a child from Jackson, Detroit was like New York or Paris.
OD: At the age of 28, you were chosen to become vice president of a new communication division for Henry Ford II. What was that like?
LB: It was remarkable. When I was working for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce as the director of communication, Henry Ford II was in the process of building the Renaissance Center, and he knew he needed a national communication program for his new venture.
I was the quote, “bright, young, savvy kid who had this new communications and psychology background.” So, when he asked me if I wanted to come down to Detroit and become the vice president of this new communication division, I said yes. It was a wonderful opportunity. It opened the door to work with the top players in the metro Detroit area, like Henry Ford II, Coleman Young, Max Fischer, Doug Fraser and Al Taubman, who were kind of the kitchen cabinet of Detroit, quite similar to Dan Gilbert, the Illitch (family) and Roger Penske today.
OD: You and your wife, Tina, launched Bassett & Bassett in 1986. Both of you had fairly good jobs. What was the driving force behind opening your own firm?
LB: We were extremely excited. We were close to opening in the late 1970s, but we felt obligated to finish our necessary projects, duties, or anything of the sort with our current employers. It really had been a dream of ours to open the first communication arts and sciences-based professional services firm. It was actually more than a dream; it was an opportunity.
OD: Can you sum up Detroit in 1972 and 2014?
LB: (In 1972) it was damaged, bleeding, hopeful, tough and persistent. Even though I had a great job at the time, people couldn’t believe that I took a job in Detroit. When we traveled, people would ask how I could be doing business in Detroit.
(2014 is about) transformation. It’s the best of times and the worst of times. About one-third of the city is vacant. Another third are the thousands of buildings that need to be torn down. And, one third of the city is islands of growth and strength. It’s a decisive moment in the history of Detroit. It isn’t so much that we are trying to rebuild the old Detroit; we’re building an entirely new Detroit with a whole new framework and concept. What gives me encouragement is this younger generation that is bringing their energy, their drive and their futures into the city and seeing the opportunity here. With big businesses moving downtown, a critical mass has been created.
When I grew up in Jackson, everyone was expected to stay in their own little neighborhood. When I walk the neighborhoods of Detroit, I see all types of people. It’s very encouraging to see young people embrace this idea of what we like to call inclusive multicultural pluralism. We must be accepting and understanding of other people’s history and way of thinking, and this new generation gives me great hope and encouragement of doing just that. If you combine youthful energy, the reinvestment in the city, the technology savvy and our ability to use inclusive multicultural pluralism, we can build the absolutely most amazing opportunity here in Detroit. There’s opportunity in Detroit, get over it.
OD: What are your thoughts on the M-1 Rail?
LB: I think the M-1 Rail is fabulous. Detroit has been trying to do rapid transit for a long time – since 1903, in fact. Each time it has been proposed, either at the federal, state or city level, the project has been killed. The M-1 Rail is an absolute key development; it will be a spine to pull people together. You can be downtown and jump on the M-1 Rail, and go up to Midtown to go to the DIA or a restaurant. The Woodward Corridor becomes one big neighborhood. It’s going to be great.
Leland Bassett may be Detroit’s biggest ambassador. He’s been working and playing in the city for a long time. He raised his twin sons in North Rosedale Park. They graduated from Cass Tech and Wayne State University and both work in Detroit. He opened a communications firm in downtown Detroit. He epitomizes living, working and playing in Detroit.
Leland’s on Twitter as @Detlistener! He loves to interact with his followers!