Ilitch's New Something Is Better Than Nothing For Detroit

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Welcome to a weekly column by Kyle Bauer on various happenings in national and local sports.  Agree or disagree with the author? Please comment below or let him know your thoughts by email,kylebauerdsn@gmail.com or twitter, @kyle_bauer

 

From the late-80s to early 00s the Joe Louis Arena was the world's warmest concrete casket--for a time, even one of the loudest. But the city-built, 20,066 capacity arena was always an enigma; generic, undersized, poorly-planned, poorly-built, and arguably poorly located, yet it housed sell-out after sell-out being filled with premium professional hockey making it successful. The home locker room was filled with Hall-Of-Famer after Hall-Of-Famer for majority of its existence, justifying the seeming interminable wait for the restroom that'd cause you to miss the first two minutes of the impending period, and the hoarded crowd pressuring the already anxiously narrow atrium (especially) after games.

Now the flow of fame has stopped; the Red Wings are an overachieving franchise at-best. The Wings are no-longer a top free-agent destination. Since the 2009 one-year deal for Marian Hossa, the Wings free-agency market has sunk to the level of their dilapidated home. The atmosphere has grown stale in the arena, making the stench falling around the team all so appropriate. Five seasons of mediocrity-- going on 35 years of a mediocre arena.

On Wednesday, the Downtown (Detroit) Developmental Authority (DDA) tentatively approved a proposal by Olympia Entertainment/Ilitch Holdings to build a $650 million multi-purpose arena, retail, residential and entertainment district that would encompass 45 blocks of largely vacant lots through the Cass Corridor in an attempt to connect the Foxtown portion of Downtown's north end to the burgeoning Midtown neighborhood.

In theory, this would be a boon not only for Olympia Entertainment, owned by the suburbia-celebrated Ilitch family, but also turning a chunk of the city that seemed to be blank between two happening areas into something spectacular. If the plan comes to full fruition, quality retailers, living space, restaurants and entertainment will make it a premier district of Detroit--another sign of slow but steady revitalization within the heart of the city.

Despite the promise of something new and bold, Detroiters are pushing back, wondering how can a city on the verge of bankruptcy can sit idly by and approve a $650 million project that's 44 percent publicly funded. There is a significant amount of fear that not only will this cost be burdensome to the indebted city but it will also feed looming gentrification, forcing out those clinging to what little they have on dying land.

Where will this 44 percent exactly come from and why can't this money be put up entirely by the billionaire Ilitch family? According to the proposal, the revenue would come from existing DDA funds; they'll own and finance the land, while Ilitch and other retailers, developers would rent it from them.The DDA is a public entity, comprising the "public" portion of the funding, capturing revenue from interest and increase of property value. No new taxes would arise from the Oakland-Macomb-Wayne (Detroit tri-county) area or more importantly, the shrunken, near non-existent tax base of Detroit's impoverished neighborhoods.

My initial gut-reaction when I heard 44 percent was to ask, how dare they? Publicly funded stadiums have hurt city residents in the past.  The most recent example of public funding for billionaires gone wrong was Marlins Park in Miami. Marlins owner Jeffery Loria claimed that tax-based public funding was needed to build the $634 million stadium, which led to a staggering $2.4 billion debt for Miami-Dade county at the tax payers expense. Currently, there is an SEC investigation into the campaign to have resident-taxes fund Marlins Park, the inflated spending incurred on the building of the stadium (it finished $99 million over budget) and the fact the Marlins were far more profitable of an organization than they reported to the county in 2009, when the final vote came in to publicly fund the stadium.

There is good cause to be cynical of billionaires asking for handouts from our taxes, but thankfully this is something Mike Ilitch is doing the correct way, hitting up the DDA's pockets where there is existent and consistent revenue. While reading further, my gut reaction was wrong--this deal appears to be on the level (for now)--it's still good that I had this gut reaction and some folks remain cynical. It's just not because of billionaire's asking for tax money, it's because Ilitch is a savior to suburbanites for signing Prince Fielder but a slum lord to actual Detroiters. He's developed the reputation for buying parcels of land and letting the land continue to rot for possible future developments, while being slow or stubborn to pay the property taxes--ostensibly the opposite of (Detroit's other notorious billionaire) Dan Gilbert's actions, which has been buy then immediately develop and put to use. The consensus among Detroiters is Ilitch, similar to Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Maroun, has the power to make more of a difference in the city-proper than he actually has in this time of great need. They ask, why will he offer Little Caesars Pizza Kits to middle and upper-middle class suburban kids to fundraise their soccer, hockey and lacrosse teams but do nothing to help the languishing Detroit Public Schools and city parks?

Criticism of Ilitch is warranted, but this is a project that answers his "slum lord" criticism. Majority of the vacant land he purchased for nothing more than Comerica Park parking will finally be put to greater use. While this may cause some local business and residential casualties--notably popular hipster club Temple Bar and karaoke, super cheap beer hang out Comet Bar--we have to keep in perspective that the city does need the suburbs and the suburbs need the city. The charm of Detroit in this burgeoning yet still grimy phase will have to become a little more clean. The potential of losing a couple local favorite bars really hurts but I'll take that if it creates more revenue for the development of Downtown Detroit and surrounding business owners out of the direct path of this project.

This doesn't change the overall financial crisis Detroit is in. It doesn't solve the crime, poverty and hunger plagued neighborhoods. It doesn't guarantee pensions for retired civil servants and higher wagers for active cops, firefighters and teachers. It doesn't scrub the petroleum-coke being allowed to build up on the banks of the Detroit River. It doesn't affect Detroit's biggest problem, the failing public schools and incomprehensible 75% drop-out rate. Vast majority of Detroit will not be aided by the Red Wings getting a new arena and the city filling the gap from the hustling Downtown rebuild to rising Midtown.

As someone who genuinely empathizes and is greatly concerned for the entire city of Detroit, it is frustrating to see a $650 million project be adopted by the DDA and be primed for a green light, when the city has tailspun into arguably the greatest civic financial crisis in the history of modern civilization. Detroit remains largely a city in ruin, yet if sports is involved, we can make something happen. That's the way it goes though; it's profitable business. The DDA is serving it's purpose to their region of the city, but we can't hold them or their funds accountable for all that isn't being fixed. Same could be said for Ilitch, who is a business man and only serves the public in pizza, pucks and Justin Verlander pitches. He's never garnered a reputation as a philanthropist through out his 30-plus years of doing business in Detroit, at age 83 that won't start now.

Similar to the Hantz Group "land grab" to build a tree farm in the east side in December, the building of a new bridge in Southwest by embattled Governor Rick Snyder and even the damn RoboCop statue that will presumably rise in Corktown next summer, we need to accept anything new as a positive in the blank canvas that has become Detroit. In an ideal world, there would be immediate answers and actions for all the ills of the city, but this is far from an ideal world. If the city is going through a true renaissance period, it is doing so from the inside-out and that is better than not at all. This is what progress looks like and Detroiters need to find a new groove among it, despite their conditioned comfort level to their current downtrodden surroundings. No one likes being displaced, we can all understand that, but there are still logistics and details yet to emerge and hopefully what arises is a happy ending for everyone.

The answer for Detroit's problems is likely a sweeping of city government and an $20 billion federal bailout-- I highly doubt that'll happen. So I'll take the "land grab", new bridge, the damn RoboCop statue and above all, this new project giving the Red Wings the sparkling venue they've deserved and trendy new entertainment district the entire city will be allowed (and hopefully can afford) to embrace.

I accept all this change because it's finally something and most importantly it will cost the city nothing.

 

Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer


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