Along Detroit’s beautifully restored international riverfront is Cobo Center, a world-class meeting and convention facility and home to the North American International Auto Show.
The complex is located on the site where Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, a French colonist, landed on the banks of the Detroit River on July 24, 1701, and claimed the area for France in the name of King Louis XIV.
Cobo Center is one of the largest convention centers in the country. Built by the City of Detroit, it officially opened Aug. 15, 1960, as Cobo Hall and was named in honor of former Detroit Mayor Albert Cobo. It was Cobo’s vision to build a convention center, and it was realized only after he died in office in 1957. The center and its attached arena cost $56 million to build (about $441 million today, when adjusted for inflation) and took four years to complete.
The first convention at Cobo Center was the Florist Telegraph Delivery (FTD) in 1960. The first event was the 43rd Auto Industry Dinner on Oct. 17, 1960; President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the keynote speaker, and the ceremony aired live on WXYZ-TV.
The 12,000-seat Cobo Arena opened in 1960 and was home to the Detroit Pistons from 1961-1978. It has hosted concerts by acts such as the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, Kiss and many others. The arena also has hosted presidential speeches, boxing, wrestling, figure skating, roller derby and Detroit-area graduation ceremonies.
But since 1965, the largest event held in Cobo Center is the nation’s premier automobile event, the North American International Auto Show, which takes place every January. This prestigious event draws journalists from around the world and puts the international spotlight on Detroit. Since 1976, the Charity Preview party has raised an average of $2.4 million each year for southeast Michigan children’s charities. After the Charity Preview, the NAIAS is open to the public for 10 days, drawing a million total attendees a year.
Every sitting U.S. president since 1960 (Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) has addressed a convention or attended an event at Cobo Center. President Barack Obama visited before being elected to the White House, but has not yet done so since.
As one of the nation’s first mega-convention centers, Cobo was made even larger in 1989, when renovations and expansions were completed. At a cost of $225 million, it nearly doubled the facility’s size, to 2.4 million total square feet, and was renamed the Cobo Conference/Exhibition Center. Now, the center boasts 723,000 square feet of exhibit space in five exhibit halls ranging in size from 100,000 to 200,000 square feet. Cobo’s flexible design allows the adjoining four exhibit halls on the main floor to form 623,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space.
Today, the Cobo Center is managed and operated by the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority (DRCFA). The five-member authority board consists of one representative from each of five governmental agencies – the City of Detroit, State of Michigan and the three metro-Detroit counties of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. The DRCFA oversaw a $279 million renovation completed in 2015. The renovation included the adaptive re-use of Cobo Arena into a 40,000 square foot ballroom, 30,000 square foot three-story atrium, broadcast studio, outdoor flex space, additional meeting rooms, and opens the facility up to views of the Detroit River with floor to ceiling glass along the new Atwater Street entrance.