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The other Detroit businessman steering Ohio's billion-dollar bet
Matt Cullen is Dan Gilbert's casino point man
This story is part of a special series.

Morning Edition Host
Amanda Rabinowitz
Along with redeveloping Detroit's riverfront (pictured above), Detroit native Matt Cullen is overseeing Dan Gilbert’s ventures, including Cleveland’s new Horseshoe casino.
Courtesy of Detroit Riverfront Conservancy
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The man overseeing one of the biggest investments in Northeast Ohio’s history has been busy for decades making billion-dollar development deals in downtown Detroit. And he’s NOT Dan Gilbert.

WKSU’s Amanda Rabinowitz talks with – and about - Matt Cullen, Gilbert’s point man when it comes to the new casinos being built in Cleveland and Cincinnati.

WKSU's Amanda Rabinowitz profiles Cleveland casino leader Matt Cullen

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"To do good and to do well"

Detroit native Matt Cullen spent nearly three decades in the car-making business and redeveloping Detroit’s riverfront. By next March, he’ll be known in Ohio as the man who brought casinos to Cleveland and Cincinnati. Cullen has one motto for how he does business: "To do good and to do well." He adds, "As Dan would like to say, if Detroit or Cleveland were stocks, we think they are undervalued."

Cullen is referring to his partner, fellow Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert. The two met in 2005 and began working together to revitalize downtown Detroit. Gilbert then tapped Cullen as chief operating officer of Rock Ventures – the group that helped pass the constitutional amendment in 2009 to bring four casinos to Ohio -- and the group that is building two of those casinos in Cleveland and Cincinnati. 

Gilbert says Cullen knows how to appeal to the public. "He’s a guy that was raised as a blue collar guy, as I was, and he’s able to deal with anybody, whether you’re blue collar or white collar, Republican/Democrat, black/white, man or woman – he’s just a great people person."

Making billion dollar deals at GM

Matt Cullen spent 29 years at General Motors, where he managed the carmaker’s 450 million square feet of global restate. He oversaw GM’s $500 million purchase of Detroit’s downtown Renaissance Center for its global headquarters.

In 2008, convinced Dan Gilbert to move his business downtown, as well. Within a year, he and Gilbert were business partners. "I just felt like it was the right time in my career to try something a bit more entrepreneurial and to just be in a position where I could play offense a little bit. At General Motors, for a long time, we spent a lot of time cost-cutting and laying off … and I wanted to try to do things in a bit of a different environment." 

Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer says Cullen’s work at GM helped spur economic development in the city’s urban core. "As a result of General Motors moving downtown and not going outside of the city, say in Warren, Michigan, where they had a lot of land where they could have built from the ground-up, it really helped to jumpstart the city of Detroit as a comeback city."

Not all business

Matt Cullen's economic development efforts in Detroit stretch to the riverfront. He’s the founding chairman of the non-profit Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, whose vision is to create more than five miles of continuous walkways along the river. Executive Director Faye Nelson says Cullen has brought three miles to completion. "We’ve got a new port authority terminal and dock, we have a new math and science high school, we have a hotel, so we’re really very pleased as a non-profit organization that the efforts that were launched in 2003 have born so much fruit."

A mirror of Detroit 

Some question whether Cullen can feel the same passion for Cleveland. Cullen says yes. He sees Cleveland as a mirror of Detroit – a city struggling to reinvent itself and give recent college graduates a reason to stay. "It really reminds me in a way of General Motors, at the time I left, which was pre bankruptcy. It was clear that there was some really compelling aspects to it – great product, some really smart people, but they had a lot of legacy costs and structural issues that they couldn’t quite outrun."

Cullen is known for public – private partnerships. Former Mayor Archer says he’s also known as a fair businessman, something he expects Cleveland will see. "Matt Cullen is not the kind of the guy who plays hide the marble. He’s very transparent and he’s very straightforward and when people look back years from now after both [casinos] are open and the benefits start coming around, it will be a blessing."


Critics of Cullen are hard to come by. But critics of the newest ventures he’s overseeing are not. Public policy group The Ohio Roundtable challenged the casinos and is suing over the expansion of video slot machines to Ohio’s seven horse racing tracks – an agreement that was worked out between Governor Kasich and Gilbert’s Rock Gaming. "The same business leaders that have talked about this plan realize that they wrote a constitutional amendment that they didn’t like. So they went behind closed doors, with the governor, and set up a whole other set of rules and systems to operate under. And that’s not what Ohioans approved in 2009," said Roundtable Vice President Rob Walgate. The lawsuit is pending.

Seeing through Cleveland casino and beyond 

By the end of March, Matt Cullen and Dan Gilbert expect to open the doors at Cleveland’s Horseshoe casino. And Cullen says despite his ongoing economic developments in his hometown city of Detroit, he’ll remain deeply involved in Cleveland. "The convention center and the Flats and all of the different things taking place and I think that that development can feed on each other. And we can really be successful in transforming the way the downtown looks and feels."

Cullen says he’s already been transformed by working with Gilbert. Their downtown Detroit offices include a full-size basketball court with its own score board, scooters and cherry and banana scratch-and-sniff wallpaper. Cullen says the biggest thing he’s learned from all that is that business can be fun.
Listener Comments:

Matt Cullen used to work at General Motors in Detroit and was very successful. He is helping Dan Gilbert with the plan to build a casino in Cleveland.

Posted by: Anonymous on January 10, 2012 8:01AM
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