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World Series brings Tiger economy to Motown

By Steve Keating

DETROIT (Reuters) - Almost everyone loves a great comeback story and, for those who do, few are more compelling than the one unfolding in Detroit as the Motor City sheds its 'loser-ville' image.

After decades of decay, the city that was at Ground Zero of the auto industry collapse then floored by a recession is getting back on its feet, a resilience reflected by its sports teams and highlighted by the Tigers' return to the World Series.

The auto industry and the beaten down city it calls home may still be in the midst of a painful recovery but Detroit will feel the full impact of a robust Tiger economy this weekend as the Motor City gets set to host Games Three, Four and Five of the Fall Classic.

The Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that three games would pour $26 million into a city that can use every cent.

"We expect it (World Series) to have an impact of upwards of $8 million a game...it is an economic engine for us," Dave Beachnau, executive director of the Detroit Sports Commission, told Reuters.

"One of the reasons we formed the Detroit Sports Commission was we see the value and importance of hosting events of that magnitude, not only because of the economic benefits they can provide but also by casting a positive image on the region.

"We are changing the perception of Detroit."

Once a bustling city that was home to nearly two million people, Detroit now has fewer than 800,000 residents with many having fled to the suburbs to escape the high crime rates and to search for jobs, leaving behind the decaying shell of a once great American metropolis.

While the Tigers' return to the World Series will do more to boost sagging spirits and civic pride than turn around the local economy, the Major League Baseball team, the National Hockey League's Red Wings and the National Football League's Lions are doing their part to breathe life into a downtown that was left for dead.

Comerica Park and Ford Field, located across the street from each other, are two world-class facilities providing an anchor for the redevelopment of the downtown core.

Amid the acres of empty lots and boarded up, crumbling buildings new businesses have begun to sprout up.

Once a foreboding 'no-go' zone, people now happily linger before and after games at a growing number of pubs and restaurants instead of racing to cars and back to the suburbs.

"The last couple of years we have seen a resurgence of companies moving downtown, or downtown employers hiring more people," said Beachnau. "You walk around downtown at lunch time you see a lot of young professionals, who work and live downtown.

"Sport has been a staple of this community for years, the Lions moving downtown played a major role in the resurgence of the stadium district, the side-by-side stadiums and the things that have been established around it.

"Sport continues to play a vital role in our local economy."

Despite the tough times and one of the highest unemployment rates in the United States, Tigers fans have been among the Major League's most loyal and this year they have topped three million in attendance for the third time in six seasons.

Detroit fans stood by the Lions when they set a new standard for failure in stumbling to an 0-16 season and celebrated with the Red Wings, who won the Stanley Cup in 2008 and reached the final in 2009, giving the city something to cheer about just as the car industry was imploding.

The Tigers' appearance in the World Series has helped dull the impact of the NHL lockout and a sluggish start to the season by the Lions, who will contribute to the party this weekend when they host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.

"The economy in Michigan and the Detroit region has made more progress than just about any other place in the nation," Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber told Reuters.

"The entrepreneurs are coming back, the auto industry is doing better and there is investment in the city. Good things are happening and the national media is recognizing that.

"The sports teams have kind of been the icing on the cake."

Despite the optimism, one need only gaze out from behind home plate at Comerica Park at darkened, vacant skyscrapers to realize Detroit has just taken the first steps on the long road back.

Motown remains the most violent city in the United States, according to Forbes, with 345 reported murders in 2011 and unemployment rates, while improving dramatically over the last three years, remain among the country's highest.

Yet amid the rubble, a rebirth is taking place with the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings waving the flag and letting prospective employers know that Detroit is open for business and ready to play ball.

The city's teams will continue to play a major role in that redevelopment, not just by attracting big events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four but by opening eyes to the possibilities of the Motor City.

The Detroit Regional Chamber has seized on that opportunity and will host a dozen people from site selector firms, whose job it is to scout out new locations for Fortune 1000 companies.

They will spend a day getting the "full Monty" sales pitch, capped off by a World Series game between the Tigers and San Francisco Giants in the evening.

"The immediate tangible of hosting the World Series is the income but here's the other incredible benefit," said Baruah. "Every game that is going to be played in Detroit on national television is an advertisement for Detroit.

"It will remind people across the country of the progress the city has made and that Detroit is back in business."

(Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)

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