Old “Cobo Hall” flaunts an all-new look for the 2014 North American International Auto Show

The Atrium at Cobo Center overlooks the Detroit River and Canada

The Atrium at Cobo Center overlooks the Detroit River and Canada

With Cobo Center renovations nearly complete, the Detroit Auto Show looks better than ever

January 10, 2014, DETROIT — The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) gets better each year. It’s the pride of Detroit. But while the auto show is the big story of the day, the other big story is its location, location, location – Cobo Center.

Every year, you can feel the buzz as media, consumers, enthusiasts, automakers take part in the most anticipated auto show of the year. For 2014, the NAIAS officials expect the auto show to be even better than last year, where nearly 800,000 people attended – the largest attendance in almost a decade.

But every great show must have a great venue, and while there’s still more work to be done, the transformation at Cobo Center is impressive. The $299 million renovation project that began in 2010 will be complete in 2015, and soon we won’t be able to recognize the old “Cobo Hall,” something that’s long overdue. There wasn’t much to see last year, but for 2014, with renovations nearly 80 percent complete, that’s all changed.

Renovations at Cobo Center, Detroit, in time for the auto show

Renovations at Cobo Center, Detroit, in time for the auto show

So what happened when they gutted Cobo Arena? What was once a 12,000-seat arena for concerts and sports is now the 40,000-square-foot Grand Riverview Ballroom, with 21 additional meeting rooms and a 30,000-square-foot glass atrium overlooking the Detroit River.

I had a chance to see the atrium after it was completed in September of last year. One word: Gorgeous. The Grand Riverview Ballroom has a capacity of 3,500 for theater style and 2,250 for banquets; hydraulic lift stage for dramatic introductions or product reveals; 40-foot ceiling height with rigging grid throughout; movable partitions with maximum sound baffling; dramatic lighting effects; strong Internet bandwidth available, including Wi-Fi and hard wired access points; and 21,000-square-foot meeting space directly below.

They had me at “strong Internet bandwidth,” as this has always been an issue at Cobo Center, both inside and outside the exhibit hall.

The atrium, which has an open view from the main concourse of the Detroit River and Canada, is breathtaking. It’s three stories high, with two floors and a mezzanine. Cobo Center has always boasted being one of the largest contiguous exhibit floor spaces in North America, with 722,500 square feet of exhibit space, and the 19th largest convention center in the country. With these renovations, the facility has even more functional space for the annual big auto show and its exhibitors.

Renovations at Cobo Center, Detroit, in time for the auto show

Renovations at Cobo Center, Detroit, in time for the auto show

Now that there’s more functional space, Cobo Center must address another big issue.  Finding something to eat while working the show during press days, or during public days, has always been a challenge. With limited offerings, most were forced out into the frigid Detroit streets in search of a real breakfast, lunch or snack.

During the NAIAS public days this year, four new food shops will be opening, each featuring Detroit-inspired cuisine. They are promising healthier options like gluten-free foods, fresh vegetables and grass-fed beef for burgers. The fare includes dill pickle soup, city “chicken,” Dudek’s pierogis, Kowalski kielbasa, Dearborn franks, and produce from Eastern Market.

And to think, all I wanted was a decent salad.

The new 8,000-square-foot Detroit Made Kitchen is inside the new main entrance to Cobo Center, near the Grand Riverview Ballroom.

With good food and a beautiful venue, NAIAS and Cobo Center officials may be right: this year could be the best Detroit Auto Show yet.

By K. Thornhill Coleman