It’s an arena built for an emperor — albeit a little one.
The $862.9 million Little Caesars Arena complex opened its doors and welcomed officials and community members Tuesday as part of a preview week to showcase the 20,000-plus seat facility.
“We put our heart and soul into something truly spectacular for the people of this city, state and region,” said Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Chevrolet Plaza before an estimated crowd of 1,900 invitees.
Joining Ilitch on stage for the event were Gov. Rick Snyder, Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and John Perkins, a carpenter apprentice on the project.
Ilitch said when the symbolic groundbreaking took place three years ago, they were committed to it being “Michigan made” and “Detroit built.”
“Today, I am so proud to say that our vision of a Michigan-made, Detroit-built Little Caesars Arena came to life even more powerfully than we had imagined, bringing opportunity into local businesses, local workers, people in need of new careers,” he said.
Construction on the Little Caesars Arena began in spring 2015 on what was mostly vacant land along Woodward near Cass Corridor. The arena anchors a 50-block area officials have branded the District Detroit.
Ilitch said that so far, 94 percent of contracts awarded for the arena and the District Detroit — 50 surrounding blocks of businesses and parks — have gone to Michigan-based companies. That’s resulted in nearly $700 million being pumped into the local economy, Ilitch said. Nearly $475 million in contracts, 62 percent of the total, were awarded to companies based in Detroit.
However, dozens of those contractors were fined a total $2.9 million as of March for frequently not hiring at least 51 percent of Detroit workers. An average of 27 percent of total hours worked at the arena site were performed by Detroit residents from April 2015 to March.
The challenge of finding and hiring qualified workers in the city has been ongoing at a time when “greater downtown” Detroit is in the midst of $5.4 billion development boom.
Perkins, the carpenter apprentice on the project, said when he first reported for work in September 2015, that was the start of his dreams coming true.
“This project open doors for me that I never knew existed,” he said. “I remember while building this arena, at times I would look around and see other Detroiters like myself building and working together.”
Perkins said he was inspired to continue his education and three months ago he earned a construction management degree from Oakland Community College. Barton Marlow promoted him to project engineer.
The Little Caesars Arena will be home to the Red Wings and Pistons and is expected to become the top concert venue in the area following the closures of Joe Louis Arena and The Palace of Auburn Hills. The arena will anchor an area of proposed mixed-use development including offices, stores and apartments.
The facility was mostly funded through the Ilitch family of the Little Caesars Pizza chain. It also includes $344 million in taxpayer-backed construction bonds.
Jones said the arena is the beginning of a new era for the city.
“I remember when our Red Wings moved from Olympia Stadium to Joe Louis Arena,” she said. “It was a time of great expectation. We know the expectations are even higher now.
“We expect not only winning teams and championships, but employment and opportunities for Detroiters who are trained, prepared and ready to contribute to this legacy of this new successful Little Caesars Arena.”
Snyder said Little Caesars Arena is a glue, along with the QLine, to connect Midtown and downtown.
The governor also noted the project shows the work that can be done by Detroiters, and the need to invest in professional trades.
“We owe a great debt of gratitude to the trade construction workers who made this happen, but it also pointed out we need to grow those fields,” Snyder said. “We need to invest in the professional trades. We need to show them greater respect and understanding.”
Duggan, meanwhile, said the city has had a lot of losses: people, businesses, sports teams.
“Just a few years ago, Detroit was on its back,” Duggan said. “We were in bankruptcy. We were a national embarrassment. And here we are four years later with today’s announcement. The city of Detroit is the only city in America where all four major sports teams now play in the downtown core. How about that?”
It also comes as a test for the vision for the billionaire owners of Little Caesars, Olympia Entertainment, Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, Ilitch Holdings. The facility has faced dogged criticism for its use of taxpayer money to help build the arena.
And arena’s the opening act, Kid Rock, has come under fire for his conservative politics and former embrace of the Confederate flag, which he used to display during his performances.
But it also begins a new chapter in the decades-long dream by the Ilitch family to overhaul a swath of downtown Detroit. The city-owned facility will be managed by the Ilitch’s Olympia Development of Michigan.
“We believe we have created something truly spectacular for our city,” said Ilitch at a Tuesday morning press conference. Ilitch said he and his family have been working on the idea of a new game-changing facility for Detroit since 1999.
Asked about the Kid Rock controversy, Ilitch said that he “can’t control what any artist does or says” and stressed the long dedication he and his family have shown to Detroit and its residents.
“I will always demand our companies strive to keep doing right by Detroit,” he said.
Ilitch Holdings reported $3.4 billion in revenue in 2016. The Ilitch family has a net worth of $5.6 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
The preview Tuesday also included a look inside the state-of-the-art arena.
Among the arena’s features:
■A 5,100-square-foot center-hung scoreboard, the largest system in the National Hockey League by viewable area.
■A total of 45 LED displays featuring more than 13,500 square feet and more than 16.5 million LEDs in and around the arena.
■Seven exterior displays, including a 900-square-foot Chevrolet Plaza display, will welcome fans and event-goers entering the arena. Brookings-based Daktronics manufactured and installed the scoreboard and displays.
■More than 18,000 red cushioned seats with cup holders. Grand Rapids-based Irwin Seating Co. was contracted for the seating.
■Olympia Entertainment and Comcast cable will offer high-speed internet connections inside the arena and throughout a 50-block area. Comcast says it has invested $11 million in the project.
■Two levels of suites 24 rows up. There are 60 suites.
■A 61,000-square-foot covered pedestrian walkway, known as The Via, includes several shops and restaurants.
■48 public restrooms throughout the arena.
“I think they thought of everything,” said Susan Kelke of Romeo. “Even when there’s no game, there’s a lot to do.”
Kelke said she pulled her children Mae Kelke, 17, Jack, 14, and Sawyer, 10, out of school early to attend the ribbon cutting. Mae, a hockey player for the Little Caesars U19 team, received an invitation for the event. The team will practice and play games at the facility.
“It’s beautiful,” Mae Kelke said of the rink. “It’s my senior year. It’ll most likely be my last year playing hockey. It will be a good year to go out with a big bang.”
Mae Kelke said she was glad to see the Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay statues were moved from Joe Louis Arena to the lobby of the arena.
On Sept. 12, the complex will hold its first event with Kid Rock performing the first of six performances. English singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran will perform Sept. 27.