Chris Ilitch fondly calls Little Caesars Arena the “culmination” of his parents’ vision for their hometown.
It may well be — to a point. The latest handiwork of Mike and Marian Ilitch, founders of the pizza empire begun nearly 60 years ago in Garden City, is just the beginning for a patch of Detroit long ago given up for dead.
Like Dan Gilbert’s burgeoning empire further down Woodward, this transforming warren of blight and abandoned buildings, surface parking lots and seedy bars, a wasteland between Midtown and a rejuvenating downtown is a marker of what Detroit can become — and how it could get there.
Since the Ilitches publicly confirmed their District Detroit development — anchored by a new arena to be shared by the Red Wings and the Pistons — 185 projects totaling more than $2 billion in outside investment have been announced, according to tallies compiled by Ilitch Holdings Inc.
The wave of development, and more to come, is changing the arc of revival for one of America’s greatest industrial cities, long ago given up for dead. Not anymore. The district and its cornerstone arena are yet more confirmation that private capital, not government spending, is the engine driving a redevelopment of Detroit slowly moving out from the city’s core.
“Eventually, we’ll hit a tipping point, and the institutional investors will come,” CEO Christopher Ilitch predicted in an interview. “It still doesn’t solve all of Detroit’s very important issues.”
Not even close. For however many buildings Ilitch and Gilbert rehab, however much of their prodigious fortunes they risk investing in their hometown, the simple fact is that new arenas and new corporate headquarters represent only part of the city’s journey back to respectability and relevance.
Too many neighborhoods still struggle, with crime and with disinvestment. Too many schools cannot produce students properly prepared to qualify for trades building an arena, installing electrical infrastructure, framing office floors in newly refurbished buildings.
Nor will this year’s opening of Little Caesars Arena and the steady awakening of the surrounding District necessarily quiet critics of “the Ilitch Way” — patiently assembling land over more than a decade, crafting an original $840 million deal for the arena partially financed in incremental tax dollars, and allegedly failing to make good on promises of follow-on investments.
Never mind that the Mike Ilitch School of Business at Wayne State University, endowed by $40 million from the late pizza mogul, is on schedule to open for classes next fall. Or that six residential projects expected to offer nearly 700 units, including roughly 140 units of affordable housing, are getting underway.
Or that a new, nine-story headquarters for Little Caesars is set to rise south of the Fox Theatre. If there is anyone who bet big on Detroit long before Gilbert bolted the suburbs for Campus Martius, it is the Ilitches. They planted their teams, their pizza business, their entertainment and development companies and their future in Detroit when others wouldn’t dare.
Only in Detroit is billions in private, locally generated investment a source for so much complaint. Only in Detroit is entrepreneurial risk of the kind taken by Ilitch and Gilbert, to name two, measured in enormous sums that other cities would gladly take, deemed insufficient.
Chris Ilitch hears the criticism, how, say, the family business spent the better part of a decade patiently assembling parcels west of Woodward near I-75 with an eye toward building a new arena and a surrounding district. And he’s uncharacteristically frank in his response:
“Look around the neighborhood and Cass Corridor, for 60 years, nobody did anything. I’m not apologetic about it at all. In our community, there was nothing happening on any vacant land. Our vision was to go big. To get the footprint, that’s what you need to do.”
By themselves, the roughly parallel Ilitch and Gilbert revivals are not Detroit’s sole economic salvation. But they are brick-and-mortar evidence that some of this community’s most prominent smart money is betting big, repeatedly, on the place they call home.
People are noticing, starting with the college grads who spent the better part of Michigan’s “Lost Decade” bolting for opportunity elsewhere, especially Chicago. Not anymore, says Ilitch, whose staff studied U.S. Census figures to discern how and whether the rejuvenation of Detroit may be playing with the kind of folks predisposed to frequenting a new sports-and-entertainment district.
In 2011, the year after Gilbert launched his companies’ move downtown, Michigan lost 11,063 people — the worst exodus in the nation — while Illinois gained 6,723, according to Ilitch Holdings’ research. Four years later, the trend reversed: Michigan notched a migration positive of 6,902 as Illinois lost 9,428.
If you don’t think that pays its own kind of dividends — in enthusiasm, in follow-on investment, in changing the international narrative of a once-great American city — you’re willfully blind. Or just too irredeemably stubborn to concede that the deeply dysfunctional Detroit of the past 60 years can rechart its way forward, provided it has the right business and political leadership.
“Whether they do it all themselves, they’ve created an environment where people can come in and invest,” Matthew Cullen, CEO of the Gilbert-affiliated Rock Ventures LLC, said of the Ilitch-built District. “Everyone else is suddenly sliding up next to them. It’s an anchor, and an anchor is good. The outcome is tremendous.”
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.