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It’s hard to imagine the $862.9 million Little Caesars Arena as just the beginning of a development goal, but when you are the billionaire Ilitch family, apparently only epic plans are made.

“We’re just starting,” said Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, on Tuesday as he spoke to a crowd of 1,900 who attended Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony of the new sports and entertainment complex.

The arena has grand ambitions imbued in its state-of-the-art, 20,000-plus seat venue that aims to be a game changer in every way.

It will immediately be known as home to the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons. It is also expected to become the top concert venue in the area following the closures of Joe Louis Arena and The Palace of Auburn Hills.

 

The facility will also have restaurants, stores and public outdoor space that will be open even when there are no concerts or games. It’s Via, an indoor atrium, has the cavernous dimensions and feel of an upscale airport terminal.

Beyond the 12-acre grounds of the arena, the facility aims to be the spark of 50 blocks of new housing, stores and offices in a part of Detroit that’s still marked by blight and empty buildings — some of which have been owned by the Ilitches for decades.

 

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Chris IIitch, Tom Gores and Mike Duggan, introduce Little Caesars Arena and talk about the impact it can have on Detroit and the region. Clarence Tabb, Jr., The Detroit News

The development plan is called District Detroit, which seeks to create a dense, vibrant area larger than the current downtown. The Ilitches are the driving force behind the plan, having invested more than $1 billion already.

“Building Little Caesars Arena and District Detroit is really a culmination in everything my parents have committed and dedicated their lives and careers to,” said Ilitch, referring to the Mike and Marian Ilitch, who began to build their Detroit-based empire decades ago off their popular carryout pizza chain. Mike died earlier this year, making Chris the business focal point of the family.

The Ilitches began to think about a new home for the Red Wings in 1999 just as the Tigers were moving into Comerica Park.

 

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To accumulate the land needed to build the arena, they spent nearly $50 million, secretly buying at least 56 properties from dozens of private owners over 15 years, public records show. They often paid millions for property in the Cass Corridor neighborhood, which was among the poorest, most blighted in Detroit.

Beyond the four blocks needed for the arena, they have spent millions more on dozens of properties — from empty lots, shabby homes and vacant buildings — in the District Detroit. For years, in some cases more than a decade, some of those Ilitch-owned properties sat empty because they didn’t want to spark a pricing frenzy, Chris Ilitch said in 2014 interview with The Detroit News.

“It’s been painful to not be able to develop some of that property because every time we made a move, the price for other property would shoot way up,” Ilitch said at the time. “But we had to wait, and that hurt.”

The plan has faced dogged criticism for its use of taxpayer money to help build the arena and for keeping property empty for years. The arena was paid for mainly by the Ilitches, but it also includes $344 million in taxpayer-backed construction bonds. The facility is owned by the city but will be managed and operate by the Ilitch’s Olympia Entertainment.

Overall, the District Detroit plan is still more promise than reality. Only 25 percent of the 50 blocks currently have development or a solid development plan, Chris Ilitch said.

But the Ilitches are in talks with more than “60 retail concepts” that range from retailers, apartment builders and an hotelier who have expressed interest in developing in the district.

Beyond the arena, work is underway for the new Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business, which will be on Woodward Avenue next to arena complex. Also underway is the $150 million Little Caesars Global Resource Center, the next headquarters for the pizza chain a block south of the Fox Theatre.

Earlier this year, the Ilitches announced plans to renovate four historic buildings and build two new structures in the district. The six developments add up to 686 residential units, with 139 of those units reserved for “affordable housing.” The goal is to develop 5,000 residences within the district, with 20 percent of the allotment designated for affordable housing.

“I can guide our businesses to keep bringing life-changing opportunities to people in our community,” Ilitch said.

laguilar@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN

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