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Before the teams, the stadiums, a casino and lots of money, there was just business — a pizza business founded in 1959.

Little Caesar Enterprises Inc. is the foundation Mike Ilitch and his wife, Marian, used to build a multinational brand, to become a generally beloved pro sports owner in one of America’s greatest pro sports towns, to reinvest in Detroit long before anyone dared dream of a future for the city given up for dead.

Not Ilitch, who died Friday at age 87. To ensure that a brighter future would get here a little faster, he put his prodigious wallet behind his faith that better days lay ahead for this town — even if he didn’t live to see the full measure of his handiwork.

It was pizza and the innate acumen to make things big out of something small that distinguished the son of Macedonian immigrants, former Marine and aspiring shortstop. He was an entrepreneur with a demonstrated knack for buying low, holding on and building value in the myriad assets Ilitch’s clan still controls today.

Because without the long-term success of Little Caesars and the risk-taking honed along the way, there likely would be no fortune to acquire the Red Wings for a relative pittance or to buy the Tigers from a pizza rival, Tom Monaghan. There would be no Stanley Cups and no 25-season run in the NHL playoffs, nor two World Series appearances.

There wouldn’t be enough dough to renovate the Fox Theatre, to ensure his family could capitalize on Detroit’s play to hit the casino jackpot, to create a record of quiet philanthropy, to endow a new business school at Wayne State University, to lay plans for a new corporate headquarters and to build the $1.2 billion District Detroit development that will connect downtown with Midtown.

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District Detroit will stand as his biggest move of all. With a new arena at its core to be shared by the Wings and the Pistons, the effort rising west of Woodward and north of I-75 will encompass more than 40 city blocks with retail, residential and other mixed use.

It’s a statement decades in the making. Long before Peter Karmanos Jr. moved Compuware Corp. downtown from the suburbs or Dan Gilbert followed with Quicken Loans Inc. and its affiliated companies, Ilitch bet on the future of Detroit. And for more than a few years, his looked like a bad bet on a hard-luck town losing people and losing its way.

“He did it when times were tough,” says George Jackson, former CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. who is working as a consultant on the Ilitch family’s District Detroit project. “He did it when everyone was running.

“Where would we be today if they had moved their operations to the suburbs? Our revitalization would have been slower. Think about where we would be if they had not done it. It was a bold move. They established then that they would be part of the solution in the city, not part of the problem.”

Gilbert, in an interview last November with D-Business magazine, said: “You can make a pretty good case that if Mike Ilitch and his family didn’t start the ‘fire’ almost 30 years ago, Detroit’s past, present and future would look very different. I found him to be a warm, optimistic, impressive and inspiring man.”

Which isn’t to say Ilitch didn’t have his critics. He did, and they ranged far beyond gripes about the latest stumbles by the Tigers or Red Wings. Complaints about his hard-nosed business tactics were legion and almost exclusively off-the-record.

Preservationists lamented his organization’s penchant for amassing downtown real estate, tracts that languished for years in anticipation of grander plans only now coming to fruition. Good government wags decried the use of public subsidies to help build Comerica Park, opened in 2000, or the incremental tax financing behind the District Detroit project.

Skeptics worried that the pizza mogul could be too successful bending City Hall his way because there weren’t too many others with Ilitch’s resources willing to invest in a downtown easily mistaken then for a ghost town. He long ago proved his mettle, but the suspicions remain. Just ask Gilbert.

The passing of Ilitch, or “Mr. I,” creates another void in the entrepreneurial canon that gave post-1967 Detroit optimism and tales of home-grown success when both were so badly needed. Max Fisher and Al Taubman didn’t necessarily share Ilitch’s big-league passions, but they did share the common trait of first-generation moguls born of modest means.

They left enormous legacies. They didn’t inherit their fortunes, they built them. They didn’t abandon their adopted home town, they doubled-down when others stood back. They worried less about failure and more about trying to make a difference in a city that helped make each of them immensely wealthy.

Mike Ilitch succeeded. And that’s making all the difference for Detroit, its sports fans and its future.

Daniel.Howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.

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