To accumulate blocks of land needed to build a sports/entertainment arena amid a planned upscale neighborhood, the Ilitch organization spent nearly $50 million and years secretly buying 56 properties from dozens of private owners.
Still, two party stores and a fire-damaged rental home along Cass Avenue remain the last three holdouts in an eight-block area described as "the soul" of the entire $650 million entertainment district expected to be created over the next five years.
"We've tried. We've talked, but no," said Richard Heapes, a key planning consultant to the Ilitches. He made the comment recently to the city of Detroit Planning Commission during a public hearing, when asked whether the Ilitches had all the land needed for the development.
The Ilitches do have all they need, Heapes said, but had made bids on other properties and were still deciding whether they would continue to pursue them. He didn't name the properties, but said they were located on Cass near Clifford Street.
Those land owners are hanging tough.
"We haven't talked in weeks. The last time, they hung up on us," said attorney Alan Ackerman, who represents the owners of Paul's Place, a party store at the corner of Cass and Henry. Multiple offers have been made by the Ilitches and all have been rebuffed, he said.
"The Ilitches have a terrific plan. Where we fit into it, still not clear," Ackerman said. Somehow two party stores that sell plenty of booze and lottery tickets don't seem to fit into the grand plans to overhaul a desolate stretch of Detroit into a fashionable district full of teeming streets. Nor does a rental home whose entire rear is charred-black from a fire.
The owners of a home on Cass near Clifford say they haven't talked to representatives of the Ilitches in more than a year. The Ilitches made an offer nearly 10 years ago for $350,000 that was turned down, the owners said. The home is owned by a group of Detroit-area investors who paid $25,000 for it 12 years ago, according to Wayne County property records.
The house has been subdivided into several rental apartments. It's a dull yellow, with a front porch that sags in the middle.
The owners often pay just enough of their property taxes to prevent tax foreclosure, according to county property records.
"In light of the groundbreaking ceremonies, parties and new activity in the vicinity of our home, it amazes me that you are the only person that has reached out," Norma Schropshire, one of the owners of the home, told a reporter. She also praised the Ilitches' grand plan.
About a block from the rental home, the owner of a squat building on Sibley got a whopping $20 million, according to city and Wayne County property records. Just east of the home is the hulking shell of the former Park Avenue Hotel, for which the Ilitches paid $2.6 million. The deal also included several adjacent parcels.
The other holdout is Stadium Liquor, 2450 Cass, which is near the northeast corner of the West Fisher Service Drive. The owners and their attorney declined comment.
A spokesman for Ilitch Holdings Inc. said Heapes was referring to the two party stores, but not the house, when discussing properties the Ilitches may pursue. But the owners of the home say they still have hope the Ilitches will pick up talks again.
To be clear, the holdouts only involve one of the five new "neighborhoods" planned in the 45-block district. The three properties are in the eight-block area that's being renamed Woodward Square.
It's not known if the Ilitches are still attempting to buy private land in the other areas outside Woodward Square.
But Woodward Square is the linchpin of the whole district. It is the zone where the Ilitches spent millions buying land. The city and its economic development council also collected 54 parcels in that eight-block area that will be used for the arena and ancillary development.
The area runs from the Fisher Freeway service drive from the south, Woodward Avenue to the east, Temple Street to the north and Cass Avenue to the west.
Based on renderings of Woodward Square, the home is next to one of the parking garages on the drawing board. But the rendering doesn't really show what could be at the site of the holdout house. It looks to be a small building that vaguely resembles the existing home.
Renderings are also vague on what is envisioned for where the party stores are located, but it is expected to be retail or housing.
"Woodward Square will be the soul of The District Detroit, the new home for Hockeytown's favorite team, the Red Wings," according to the Ilitch-run website thedistrictdetroit.com, which shows the plans for the entire 45-block zone.
"At this neighborhood's epicenter, the arena will be surrounded by a soaring glass-covered concourse pulsating with nightclub electricity, where food vendors, restaurants and shops will cater to a high-energy crowd that comes together to celebrate."
An estimated 12 million people a year could visit Woodward Square, officials contend.
The holdouts still have plenty of time to determine whether they should stay or go.