Automakers are spending more money on glitzy, state-of-the-art exhibits at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit — something organizers of the annual event believe is a good sign for the industry as well as the economically embattled city and region.
Many of the displays being erected this week at Cobo Center are larger than in past years, according to auto show co-chair Bill Perkins who helped lead reporters Wednesday on a tour of the venue, which also got a face-lift of its own for this year's gathering.
"When they come to this show, they're coming with their 'A' game," said Perkins, owner of General Motors dealerships. "It's a very competitive environment right now. The market is starting to come back.
"Detroit needs to shine. Everyone wants to make sure we have a good showing this year."
The Detroit auto show begins next Monday and runs through Jan. 23. It opens to the public Jan. 15.
It follows a strong 2010 for U.S. auto sales, which rose for the first time since the recession. New car and truck sales came in last year at 11.6 million, up 11 percent from 2009. December sales rose to 1.14 million, an 11 percent leap from a year earlier.
"It's an exciting time," said Scott LaRiche, vice president and executive manager of Lou LaRiche Chevrolet. "It's almost like a resurgence of Detroit. When you have Chrysler and GM and Ford in this town, it's very important to shine with this show. So many people from around the world are looking in on this."
Porsche, which missed the last three shows in Detroit, is returning this year.
"Having Porsche back is validation that the North American International Auto Show is the place to get your message out in North America," said auto show chair and Meade Lexus president Barron Meade.
Organizers expect a continued increase in the auto show crowd, as people feel better about the economy and vehicle sales rise. Attendance last January was just over 714,000, a jump of about 65,000 over 2009, according to show spokesman Sam Locricchio.
The auto show "remains the Super Bowl event for the local economy," according to David Sowerby, portfolio manager for the Loomis, Sayles & Co. investment firm.
Sowerby estimates the economic impact of the show at between $375 million and $400 million. "It will be a meaningful improvement from a year ago levels," he said.
Auto show officials estimated last year's economic boost for the region at $325 million.
Whether Detroit will keep hosting the event in the long term has been in doubt. Organizers have complained that the aging convention center needs improvements and more floor space for the auto show to stay competitive. Oakland County pushed to move it to the Detroit suburb of Novi, about 20 miles northwest of Detroit.
But a regional board, which took over Cobo's operation from the city of Detroit, has pumped about $3 million in upgrades to the venue, including $400,000 to repair leaks in the building's roof. About $1.5 million was spent on electrical upgrades, which makes it easier for vendors working on sets for the auto show.
A 25,000-square-foot expansion also is planned for the 2012 show.
Fear of losing the auto show no longer exists, said Larry Alexander, chair of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority.
The five-member board is made up of representatives from the city, the governor's office and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
"The Authority is committed to being sure the convention center makes the improvements necessary to ensure the auto show remains the pre-imminent auto show in the world," Alexander said. "The dollars that are in-place are being spent very wisely that, from a competitive standpoint, we have a facility to serve the auto show."
The updates also are expected to help attract and keep other conventions at Cobo, he added.