The $862.9 million Little Caesars Arena is just weeks from its fall debut and there’s both a last minute bout of fear and loathing about its impact as well as hopes that it can overhaul 50 blocks of the city.
“I was a huge fan when I first heard about it. Now, I’m very disappointed,” said Harry Kefalonitis, an owner of Harry’s Detroit bar and restaurant, as he stood outside the bar’s front door watching heavy-duty vehicles enter the arena construction zone across the street.
“I’m a little guy and they are big guys. They sure do look like they are going to trample me,” Kefalonitis said.
Not every bar in the area shares that view. The owner of Bookies Bar and Grill at Cass and West Columbia, about four blocks south of the new arena, offered a different perspective.
“There are going to be thousands and thousands more people downtown,” said Bookies owner Jay Lambrecht. “How can that not be beneficial?”
The 200 planned events every year at the arena will go a long way to attracting customers year-round, Lambrecht said. “Downtown is still very event driven. If there’s no concert or game, the numbers (of customers) go way down.”
Nevertheless, the Harry’s Detroit concerns are among three recent efforts to force changes to the arena plans. The campaigns echo the dogged criticism that the city-sanctioned deal to get the arena was stacked in favor of the billionaire company behind the development.
A longtime Cass Corridor business, Harry’s Detroit is 50 feet away from the 12-acre complex anchored by a 20,000-plus seat arena that will be home to the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons.
The arena also is expected to become the top concert venue in the area. It will be surrounded by two new buildings filled with offices, stores and apartments. The site plans also include plenty of new outdoor space such as Chevrolet Plaza.
Advocates for the arena contend the Harry’s Detroit owners are missing the bigger picture; a sports bar next to a venue that every year is expected to draw millions of sport fans and concert goers is a bar owner’s dream. That opinion is shared by the operators of the arena complex and at least a few other nearby bar and restaurant owners.
“This will be a highly active urban area with thousands and thousands of customers to patronize and benefit local establishments,” wrote Ed Saenz, a spokesman for Olympia Development of Michigan, in an email.
Many local leaders view the arena as the catalyst that will overhaul 50 city blocks by 2022, creating an upscale, dense district larger than the current downtown.
Those three last-minute efforts against the development began in June. Only one has produced any tangible results thus far — a temporary reprieve in demolishing three nearby empty buildings.
The arena opens Sept. 12 with a concert by Kid Rock, who will perform six dates through Sept. 20.
The most serious pushback is a legal challenge launched by a prolific litigant and a Detroit political candidate who aim to halt taxpayer-backed construction bonds for the arena. Their lawsuit could potentially derail the Pistons move to the venue — city officials insist the effort will fail. The NBA team’s current home court is at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
This week, a federal judge dismissed parts of the lawsuit, but, the litigants, Robert Davis and Etta Wilcoxon, vow to continue efforts to put the issue on the ballot this fall.
On another front, preservationists have rallied to save three long-empty buildings from the wrecking ball. The Detroit City Council voted in late June to prevent the demolitions until further study.
Two of the buildings are on Cass near the Fisher Freeway Service Drive. The other is on Henry Street near Cass.
The buildings, one block from the arena, are owned by the development arm of the Ilitch family, who own the Detroit Red Wings and the Little Caesars pizza chain, headquartered a few blocks south of the arena.
The Ilitch family’s Olympia Development of Michigan is building the arena and their Olympia Entertainment will operate the complex. The facility is city owned.
Then there are the issues presented by Harry’s Detroit. The bar owners are lobbying city officials and Olympia that the arena, along with the blocks of nearby properties controlled by the Ilitches, will crush their small businesses through traffic jams and an onslaught of new bars and restaurants.
Jerry Belanger, owner of the downtown Park Bar, 2040 Park, shared Kefalonitis’ concerns.
“They’re creating the stadium at the crux of all the expressways. You can come in from the suburbs, enter that compound, you can get out, and you don’t have to really deal with the rest of us,” Belanger said.
The Park Bar, like Harry’s Detroit, is in the thick of the Ilitches’ web of pro sports teams, entertainment venues, surface parking lots and some properties that have been empty for years.
Entities linked to Olympia Development started buying land around the Park Bar about a decade ago, according to city documents, on speculation that the area would be the future home of the complex.
The properties, which included surface parking lots and abandoned buildings, are clustered around Grand Circus Park and along Grand River and Cass.
The Park Bar, at Elizabeth and Park, is two blocks from Comerica Park, home of the Ilitch-owned Detroit Tigers, and the Fox Theatre, the venue owned and operated by the Ilitches. That means the Park Bar gets Tigers fans and Fox Theatre patrons.
Belanger said the new arena, and future ancillary development, will be the latest in a steady influx of downtown competition and construction that’s driving customers away.
The city now routinely bans street parking on weekend nights around his bar, which is causing havoc for his workers who can’t afford the daily rates of nearby lots, he added.
Kefalonitis, who has owned Harry’s Detroit with his sister for 25 years, said he assumed at some point Olympia representatives would reach out to them given that the bar, at Henry and Clifford streets, is next door to the arena. That never happened, he said, and admitted he rarely attended public meetings about arena plans that have been held over the past four years.
He said he became motivated after construction began. Just past Harry’s alley, the public street is being overhauled for an outdoor area that will have eateries and bars.
“They are going to put barriers up right next to my business to block me off” from that area, he said. “People won’t be able to walk from all those new businesses to mine. It will be like living next to a great party, but I’m not invited. That’s just mean.”
Henry Street will still have automobile traffic “most of the time” but “sometimes could be closed to accommodate on-street dining or similar activity,” Olympia spokesman Saenz said.