Mike Ilitch: A True Champion For Detroit

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    It’s not difficult to quantify the love that Mike Ilitch has for the city of Detroit. All one has to do is follow the native Detroiter’s long history of personal, business and community commitments to the Motor City.

    While downtown Detroit has now become a hotbed for new and relocated businesses, Ilitch believed in this sector of the city more than three decades ago. In 1982, he and wife Marian purchased the Detroit Red Wings and in 1992 the Detroit Tigers. The power couple chose to keep both professional teams downtown, even when neighboring suburbs courted them to move their sports enterprises elsewhere.

    Sealing the deal to stay in downtown Detroit, the Ilitches, in 2000, built Comerica Park for the Tigers, electing to use a significant amount of their own money to complete the venue.

    Many years earlier, Ilitch had bought a neglected downtown Fox Theatre and refurbished it to its 1928 finery. The theatre is now one of city’s crowning jewels, and one of nation’s top grossing entertainment venues. He also built the famed Hockeytown Café adjacent to the Fox, turning it into one of the areas most popular sports bars and restaurants.

    In the late 1980s, Ilitch showed supreme faith in Detroit when he established his Little Caesars world headquarters downtown, after its inception in Garden City, Mich. Ilitch, along with Marian, had started the company in 1959 and worked to power it to become one of the world’s largest pizza chains.

    Now the Ilitches and Olympia Development of Michigan (ODM), along with the City of Detroit, Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and the State of Michigan, have entered into a public-private partnership to plan, design and build a $450 million sports and entertainment arena, along with a $250 million ancillary development project that will be comprised of residential, retail, office and commercials facilities.

    The catalyst development project financing breakdown is 44 percent will come from private investments (ODM) and 56 percent from public investments (the state, DDA and the City of Detroit’s contribution of land). The DDA will technically own the new arena, but will contract with Olympia Development to manage the venue.

    According to ODM officials, the new state-of-the-arts arena, which will be home to the Detroit Red Wings, will feature 650,000 square feet of space and seat 18,000. It will be in close proximity to Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers and Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. Once the new arena is built, it is believed that Detroit will be the only American city to have three professional sports venues within close walking distance of each other.

    While exact boundaries have not been completely defined, it is believed that the new arena and its ancillary development will be on Woodward Avenue, just north of the Fox, Hockeytown Café and I-75 (Fisher Freeway), and will extend to such streets as Temple (to the north) and Clifford (to the west). Some of the ancillary development is slated for areas behind the Fox.

    In addition to serving as home ice for Wings Detroit games, the arena will accommodate approximately 150 other events each year. According to project officials, the next step is for the DDA board to vote on approving a Concession Management Agreement with ODM.

    Additionally, City Council will soon determine whether to approve expansion of the boundaries for the planned ancillary development, as well as discuss approving the transfer of land to the DDA.

    While plans to build the new sports and entertainment arena and ancillary development are grandiose in scope, many Detroiters wonder if they will have to help pay for the project. They also wonder how a city engulfed in bankruptcy could afford to take on such a massive financial endeavor.

    Studies have shown that stand alone sports arena does not work and they don’t want to just build an arena. That’s why they believe it is important for to build this entire ancillary district, which often gets lost in the translation.”

    The proposed arena and surrounding complex of residential, retail, office and commercials facilities will mean jobs for Detroiters, something mandated by Ilitch. Of the 8,300 expected construction jobs associated with completing the project, 51 percent of the jobs must go to Detroiters under an executive order. Additionally, 30 percent of the construction budget must go to Detroit businesses.

    To meet the 51 percent, they have a job outreach plan that they will be working on to implement. It’s important to Mr. Ilitch that Detroiters are included in the job opportunities associated with this project. There are some viable plans to establish a workforce development and training program to help prepare Detroiters for the needed work.

    There will be numerous community outreach initiatives designed to mentor local businesses and empower Detroiters through jobs, training, education and other means, all of which will positively impact adults, youth, schools and families.

    While no specific date has been announced to begin construction, ODM officials believe that once the shovels are in the ground, it will take between two and three years to complete the arena, with another few years to complete the ancillary development projects.

    “It’s always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit,” said Mike Ilitch, chairman, Ilitch Holdings, Inc. “From the time we bought the Fox Theatre, I could envision a downtown where the streets were bustling and people were energized. It’s been a slow process at times, but we’re getting there now and a lot of great people are coming together to make it happen. It’s going to happen and I want to keep us moving toward that vision.”

    Economic experts agree.

    “This catalyst development project will enhance the revitalization of downtown and Midtown Detroit,” said Mark Rosentraub, a professor at the University of Michigan. “The project will create more than $1 billion of direct spending in Detroit over the next 30 years.”

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