Howes: Pistons' return home reverses exodus to suburbs

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Tom Gores owns the Detroit Pistons, but the Los Angeles mogul and chairman of Platinum Equity LLC doesn’t appear to be much for playing games.

Rarely does a big-league owner use a press conference before the home opener to confirm a deal is “close” to uproot his team from its suburban home in The Palace of Auburn Hills and return to its downtown roots, perhaps by as early as next season. But Gores did exactly that Friday.

He says talks with the Ilitch family over the Pistons sharing playing time in the new Red Wings arena, a cornerstone of their District Detroit development north of I-75 and west of Woodward, are “very close in crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. We’re serious about making this move.”

And just like that, the quarter-century-plus exodus of Detroit’s major league sports teams to Oakland County is poised to be fully reversed. That’s less a commentary on the suburbs than it is affirmation by some of this region’s savviest business people that the reinvention of Detroit is real, is gaining traction and is offering a worthy home for their franchises.

Let that sink in. Just three years ago, Detroit was the largest city in American history to file Chapter 9 bankruptcy, and its highly touted mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for public corruption. Just eight years ago, its iconic automaker, General Motors Corp., and smaller rival Chrysler Group LLC teetered on the edge of collapse.

This town was, as an influential business leader described it to me Monday, the nation’s doormat. It was a laughingstock vilified by Wall Street and members of Congress in both parties; its defining auto industry’s operating methods defied generally accepted business principles; it represented the failure of 50 years of governance by the Democratic Party and its allies in organized labor.

It was a city criticized as much by its own people as it was the worldwide diaspora of Detroiters nursing grudges. Detroit was, as the New York Times said just last month in a piece wondering why “politicians are so obsessed with manufacturing,” the “nation’s official postindustrial wasteland.”

Not quite.

Detroit’s automakers are making more money in their home market than anytime since the 1960s. GM and Ford Motor Co. are emerging as players in mobility, self-driving vehicles, ride-sharing and electric vehicles that, in GM’s case, can go more than 230 miles on a single charge. The city is drawing private investment and public acclaim, even as City Hall steadily improves delivery of basic services and police protection.

A Pistons deal with the Ilitch family should add financial heft and additional allure to their District Detroit development, making downtown truly a year-round sports destination. That should provide incremental revenue for restaurants and bars, hotels and retail popping along the Lower Woodward corridor and nearby enclaves.

It would join the pile of investments stretching well into the billions, underscoring Detroit’s rep as one of America’s great sports towns — and one of the hottest redevelopment stories in the country. Between just the Ilitch family’s District Detroit and mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert’s downtown real estate empire, roughly $5 billion is being invested in downtown redevelopment.

That doesn’t include new restaurants and bars, condo rehabs and new residential construction, corporate relocations and satellite offices, reinvigorated cultural leadership and comparatively large commitments by philanthropies with names like Kresge and Ford, Davidson and Hudson-Webber, Knight and Kellogg.

With apologies to Mark Twain, reports of Detroit’s death are greatly exaggerated. A Pistons move downtown would be one more piece of evidence that the city’s post-meltdown reinvention is being powered by private capital looking for a return and looking to make a difference — not simply to commit acts of corporate charity.

The Pistons may not be the last big-league move into downtown. Gores and Gilbert still are pushing plans to acquire the abandoned county jail site from Wayne County and convert it into a cornerstone of their billion-dollar mixed use plan there. It would include a soccer stadium for a Major League Soccer franchise.

Not too long ago any of these developments would be front-page news, touted by City Hall, watched intensely by the business community, tracked by credit-ratings agencies for signs Detroit finally could be breaking from decades of deindustrialization, disinvestment and depopulation.

They still are news, and they should not be taken for granted. A mogul like Gores always has options, and that he’s poised to pick Detroit says once again there’s something real going on here.

(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.