December 5, 2012 at 4:20 pm

John Niyo

Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch can't wait for arena

Mike Ilitch wants to build a new arena In downtown Detroit to house his Red Wings. (David Guralnick/Detroit News)

Mike Ilitch has been talking about this for months. He has been planning it for years. He has been envisioning it a lot longer than that.

But Tuesday's news out of Lansing, where officials from Ilitch's Olympia Development were pitching their plans for a new arena anchoring a $650 million development in downtown Detroit, only confirms what we already knew.

The 83-year-old pizza magnate, who also happens to be the owner of the Tigers and Red Wings, is in a hurry to get things done. Whether it's winning a World Series or building a new arena for his hockey team or, presumably, ending this ridiculous NHL lockout, there is no more pretense about patience anymore.

"This city needs activity," Ilitch said last February, as he proudly announced Detroit would host the since-delayed-but-still-promised NHL Winter Classic. "And there's gotta be some bold moves now, not just talk."

Talk is cheap. Arenas aren't.

And while there are all sorts of devilish details absent from what the taxpaying public in a nearly-bankrupt city knows about this grand plan, there's no doubt about the first part of that statement.

This city desperately needs more bustle, and less hustle. And Ilitch, along with the likes of Peter Karmanos and Dan Gilbert, not to mention plenty of young entrepreneurs you've never heard of, seems determined to make it happen — sooner rather than later.

"It's always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit," Ilitch said in a statement Tuesday. "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."

Coming into focus

How soon will it happen? And at what cost? Well, that remains to be seen.

But the vision for a new arena has been slowly coming into focus the last few years. There was the conspicuous binge buying of real estate in lower Midtown. There was the hiring of Tom Wilson, who left The Palace in Auburn Hills and headed downtown tasked with building another one. There was the Ilitches' very public bid to buy the Pistons two years ago, undoubtedly in an attempt to help leverage this deal.

"We're gonna have a new arena," he told The Detroit News last fall, finally letting slip the worst-kept secret in town.

And then, after taking a closer look at other new venues in recent years, including a tour of the Penguins' just-opened Consol Energy Center, the Ilitches dropped another major hint this long-planned project was finally getting ready to see the light of day. Chris Ilitch, the president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, Inc, hired an architect in May to design an entertainment district built around a new home for the Red Wings, with Nationwide Arena in Columbus one likely template.

Tuesday, they actually started talking publicly about money — and the public's money — which is always the tricky part.

"Obviously, there's going to be public contributions associated with this, which is always troublesome given these times," Brian Holdwick, executive vice president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, told WJR on Tuesday. "But we're in desperate need of a new arena for the Red Wings. And this is more than just that. This is a sports and entertainment district. We have commercial and retail and housing."

What about Pistons?

Now then, will it house one tenant or two? That's a question everyone was asking, especially in light of new Pistons owner Tom Gores' most recent comments about the possibility of moving back to the city.

"I don't think you want to leave it and just say, 'Nice to see you,' to The Palace," Gores said before his team's Oct. 31 home opener at The Palace, where the crowds remain sparse at best this season.

"I don't want to do that. In the meantime, if the future is downtown, and that's what we have to do to grow, I'm not against that."

If you're not against something, that doesn't necessarily mean you're for it. That's as true for wary folks in Detroit as it is for Gores, the private-equity billionaire.

Again, there are lots of unanswered questions here, from the timetable to the exact location to what will become of that old, windowless building on the riverfront the Red Wings currently call home.

And let me just add I hope the timing of Tuesday's announcement wasn't merely a coincidence.

There'd better be some good news that follows this week with NHL owners and players meeting in New York on Tuesday in what amounts to a last-ditch attempt to salvage the 2012-13 season. Because to come asking for public money while at the same time helping to put people out of work with this labor stoppage undoubtedly strikes many in Ilitch's self-proclaimed Hockeytown as a bit tone deaf.

Still, there's not much sense in arguing with him these days. As Tigers president Dave Dombrowski said with a laugh in January, the day the team announced they'd signed Prince Fielder to an Ilitch-driven $214 million free-agent deal, "If he wants to do something, and he feels he can do it, you can't tell him that he can't do that."

Clearly, he feels he can do this, and I don't think there's anyone in the city with any real power that's going to tell him he can't.

So I just hope, whenever they get it done, they have the sense to put in a few windows this time.

If they're going to finally realize Ilitch's vision for a new arena and bustling downtown streets in Detroit, it'd be nice if they added a view so you could actually see it.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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