Kay Agney of Higbie Maxon Agney Inc. Realtors featured in The New York Times
Posted by ERIC KONIGSBERG — May 13, 2009
LuxuryRealEstate.com member Kay Agney of Higbie Maxon Agney Inc. Realtors is featured in The New York Times :
Grosse Pointe, Mich. - WITH an address in this town, where the e’s are silent but still do all the work, a club doesn’t need an elaborate name, nor even much of a physical plant. The Tennis House tells you everything you need to know. You either get it or you don’t.
One indoor Har-Tru court. An intermittently staffed wet bar with some dilapidated steel chairs covered in tartan vinyl. And upon entering, a doormat that says only “Since 1936.”
The club is so low profile that some people here aren’t even aware of it. It was built, said Richard Klimisch, a longtime member, by Edsel Ford and is still owned by members of the Ford family who live nearby.
“You used to have to wait years to get in, but now we can’t even find enough members,” said Mr. Klimisch, a former engineer and lobbyist for General Motors who considers himself very fortunate to have taken an early buyout several years ago. “We need 100 just to cover the costs, and we’re down to about 75. It used to be the most exclusive club in Grosse Pointe. Now, we’re probably going to have to close it down.”
Detroit is used to playing through pain — having endured, over the years, the 1967 race riots, the advent of fuel-efficient Japanese cars, and Kid Rock’s marriage to Pamela Anderson. But this is Grosse Pointe, one of its grandest suburbs, a community along Lake St. Clair, where — if some generalization can be permitted — the mansions have porte-cocheres and loggias; and the Fords, Chryslers and Dodges on the block might be last names.
The automotive industry’s current woes are so severe, members of the local ruling class say, that they feel threatened to an extent they haven’t before. With Chrysler in bankruptcy and G.M. — even after receiving $15.4 billion in federal loans — at the brink of it, too, gloom and fear are hardly abstract quantities.
Auto executives have been as ridiculed as any high-flying group in recent years, with their private jets, falling sales and spectacularly huge losses. Grosse Pointe’s clubby culture always seemed solid. But now, as the industry lays off its white-collar workers in greater numbers, the suburb is suffering and residents seem surprised — and maybe even a little angry. The troubles go much deeper than the fate of one threadbare tennis court.
“There are so many houses for sale along Lake Shore Drive,” said Joe Warner, editor of The Grosse Pointe News (one of the last papers in the country to advertise “butlers” in its classifieds). “Even through all Detroit’s ups and downs, those houses just never came on the market. They stayed in families for generations.”
Mr. Klimisch’s wife, Prudence Cole, a career counselor, described a “level of fear” even among her executive-level friends. One manager at G.M., she said, asked her advice recently about preparing to re-enter the job market.
“Now a few years ago, an executive from G.M. would never have asked me that,” Ms. Cole said. “People came to equate the company with stability. You had a job for life. It had 100 years of prosperity and suddenly that’s all gone.”
At University Liggett School, a K-12 private school in Grosse Pointe Woods where tuition runs as high as $20,000, that fear of the unknown has needed to be addressed just as much as lost income. “We’ve identified 20 to 25 young children out of an enrollment of 540 whose families have expressed concern about the future of Chrysler and whether or not they’ll remain full-paying or will need a lot of financial aid,” said Kevin Breen, the associate head of the school.
These are not Chrysler employees but families with businesses that supply the Big Three with parts. “They don’t know until they get the news from Washington about forgiving Chrysler’s loans whether the company will be able to make good on their accounts payable,” he said.
Mr. Breen was quick to note that the school has dipped into its shrinking endowment and, over the last three years, tripled the financial aid it disperses. “And we have some families who we are relying on more heavily than ever to partner with us,” he said.
Over the last year, the Big Three have cut more than 15,000 white-collar jobs, and G.M. has said it plans to cut more. In Michigan, the white-collar unemployment rate was 5.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008, a full percentage point higher than the national average.
Skip to next paragraph Kay Agney, a real estate agent in Grosse Pointe, said foreclosures had resulted in depreciations of some properties on the order of 35 percent or more — “say, a $1.2 million house going for $700,000 or $800,000,” she said.
It isn’t just Grosse Pointe. Bloomfield Hills, Orchard Lake and Birmingham — the newer-money suburbs to the west of Detroit that are near Chrysler and that grew in stature when G.M. moved some operations to the nearby city of Pontiac — are struggling, too, making the entire group of towns feel like a very small campus these days.
Automotive executives really are household names, such that when a woman at the bar of the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham describes herself as an “aesthetician, which means I do hair removal,” and says that Dieter Zetsche, the former head of Daimler-Chrysler, was a client, it’s understood that she’s talking about sculpturing his famous mustache.
(Bloomfield Hills — where nearly half the houses were valued at $1,000,000 or more in 2000 — and Birmingham are a bit like a Midwestern and suburban version of the Hamptons. There are modern houses on out-of-sight estates. Grosse Pointe would be more like Nantucket but without scrimshaw.)
All around the rich Detroit suburbs you hear familiar stories about the impact, though many believe their woes to be beyond the familiar, “because I would argue that we’ve been hit harder than other parts of the country,” said Denise Ilitch, a regent of the University of Michigan and the publisher of Ambassador, a local party-pages magazine. Her father, Mike Ilitch, started Little Caesar’s pizza and owns both the Detroit Tigers and the Red Wings.
So the charitable boards on which Ms. Ilitch and her cohort sit and the luxury retailers they keep in business, are all faced with the unfortunate plague that in the restaurant business is called a bad location. Except the location, in this case, is the entire community. Her cohort includes Debbie Dingell, the G.M. executive who is married to Representative John Dingell; Danielle Karmanos, the wife of the Compuware founder Pete Karmanos Jr.; and Julie Taubman, who married into the family of A. Alfred Taubman, the mall mogul.
Linda Dresner, who owns a clothing boutique in Birmingham, said her store was “speaking to fewer people” these days, though recently she still held a J. Mendel Trunk sale and last week was donating clothes for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s spring auction.
Luigi Bruni, the hairstylist up the road, said that he was making more house calls to blow out clients’ hair, and willing to give discounts.
“If, for example, I have a lady who’s an executive secretary at whatever-whatever car manufacturer, and she just got laid off, I’ll figure out a price she can work with,” Mr. Bruni said, adding: “That’s just a hypothetical customer.”
And then there are the clubs. Even grande dames like the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club have been forced to genuflect to hold onto members.
“They’ve become more family-friendly, more casual,” said Mr. Warner of The Grosse Pointe News. “You’re seeing a little less resilience to host a corporate golf outing than there used to be.”
While Mr. Warner dropped one of his memberships this year, he also added one. “They lowered the golf initiation fee from $35,000 to $2,500 and said I could finance it with no payment for a year,” he said, smiling sheepishly.
The Detroit News reported that other clubs had been sending gift certificates to residents of entire neighborhoods in hopes of finding new members and likened it to “borrowing the sales tactics of Wal-Mart.”
These people feel compelled to identify with the city’s laborers — their hard work and hard luck the very essence, after all, of Detroit. “What’s really odd is when you hear some people in Congress saying ‘Well, just let the auto industry go down,’ ” said Douglas Hess, a Grosse Pointe lawyer who retired from G.M. seven years ago. “It’s inconceivable to me to be cavalier about the auto industry at the same time that they’re worrying about saving these New York bankers.”
“I don’t think the rest of the country can appreciate the strength of character and the toughness that goes on here in Detroit,” said Ms. Karmanos, a glamorous local figure with a billionaire husband and foundation involvement galore. She was sitting in the conservatory of their mansion in Orchard Lake — near a fireplace of striated marble.
She feels fortunate. Her husband’s company is not directly affected; the N.H.L. team he owns — the Carolina Hurricanes — is in the playoffs; and she is home expecting twins.
“I wake up every day and ask God, ‘How can I help my community?’ ” she said, adding that her father had worked on the line at a Ford plant and that she would “rather die than drive a foreign car.” She added: “Detroit will come together and survive.”
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