Mike Ilitch resurrected the “Dead Wings,” gave the Tigers back their roar and turned a small pizza store into a global empire.
But possibly the greatest legacy Ilitch leaves behind for the Motor City is downtown Detroit itself.
Downtown Detroit would look much different if it weren’t for Mike Ilitch. In 1987, when most companies were flocking to the suburbs after decades of decline in Detroit, Ilitch purchased the massive Fox Theatre and its surrounding buildings. He rehabilitated the theater in less than a year and moved the headquarters of his Little Caesars pizza empire from Farmington Hills to the grand theater.
The move was part of a master plan to spark the city’s long-awaited entertainment district, which would eventually include Comerica Park, Ford Field, the Detroit Opera House and much more along Woodward Avenue and Grand Circus Park.
“It’s always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit,” Ilitch said in 2012. “From the time we bought the Fox Theatre, I could envision a downtown where the streets are 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.”
Ilitch’s final mark on the Motor City — Little Caesars Arena, the new home of the Detroit Red Wings and likely the Detroit Pistons — is set to open this year.
The $732.6 million arena is the final piece of Olympia’s goal to transform 45 blocks of Detroit, creating a district that includes retail, residential and offices development called “The District Detroit” just north of downtown.
Wayne State University’s Mike Ilitch School of Business is being built near the new arena at the southwest corner of Woodward and Temple. The school is funded in part by a $40 million donation by Ilitch and his wife Marian.
Ilitch was able to see his dream of a vibrant downtown beginning to form in recent years, as fellow businessmen such as Dan Gilbert and Peter Karmanos Jr. also invested in downtown.
“Mike was the first. Mike really saw and shared the vision of what downtown could be,” said Bob Berg, press secretary for former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young from 1983-93. “It would be hard to overstate the impact Mike and the Ilitch family have had in terms of revitalizing Detroit.
“It was really the first step for getting the ball rolling for everything else that has happened since then.”
Berg attended the re-opening of the Fox in 1988. He described it as a “very celebratory atmosphere” that “breathed new life into that area.”
Michigan Opera Theatre President and CEO Wayne Brown said the entertainment district is continuing to take shape. “It’s a different time,” he said. “I continue to witness an unprecedented recovery that’s underway.”
In a nearly 30-year span, Ilitch and family purchased properties and ushered in a whole new era for Woodward Avenue and surrounding areas — from purchasing the Detroit Tigers in 1992, to opening the MotorCity Casino, Hockeytown Cafe and others in 1999, and Comerica Park in 2000.
Ilitch Holdings Inc., a parent company for the Ilitch family’s 10 business operations that was established in 2009, is in the process of doubling the footprint of Little Caesars Pizza in downtown. A new eight-story headquarters is being built next to the Fox Theatre.
Although occasionally the center of controversy over public money that help fund many of Ilitch’s developments, the Detroit-born son of Macedonian immigrants leaves a legacy unlike any have on the city.