Howes: Pistons’ Detroit play quickens downtown momentum

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The return of the Pistons to their native Detroit marks the end of a beginning inspired by a rival NBA boss.

The team’s decampment from Oakland County’s Palace of Auburn Hills punctuates the trend that mortgage lender Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., effectively started six years ago when he moved fewer than 2,000 employees downtown to the former Compuware building from suburban Livonia.

That accelerated further this week with the culmination of talks to bring the Pistons into the arena at the heart of the Ilitch family’s District Detroit development. It’s a fitting capstone to three decades of investment in the city by Mike and Marian Ilitch, who started their urban reclamation project more than 20 years before Gilbert made it cool.

Now, smart money attuned to millennial trends and civic enthusiasm keeps following. The reasons are simple, actually. Because low property values and big opportunity existed alongside the architectural bones of a city forgotten but not gone, the likes of Pistons owner Tom Gores is not keen to be the billionaire on the outside looking in.

“It’s the right time, an exciting time,” he said Tuesday during a news conference to announce the preliminary agreement that will bring the Pistons to the new Little Caesars Arena next fall. “It’s overwhelmingly the right thing. It’s great for the Detroit Pistons. It’s the right call for our players, our fans.”

The major beneficiaries of this move, telegraphed so clearly by Gores himself before this season’s home opener, are the city of Detroit, its business and cultural community and the thousands of residents who endured years of corruption, bankruptcy, meager public services, even humiliation.

“I can’t believe we’re here,” Mayor Mike Duggan said, recalling the bitter memories of watching the Detroit Lions play their first game in Pontiac after decades in the city. “Every longtime Detroiter knows what I mean. It seems like most of my adult life, in one of the greatest sports towns, our sports teams didn’t believe in the future of our city.”

They do now. The owners of the Big Four franchises and Detroiters are seeing a city and its leadership demonstrate an ability to execute a transformation cynics believed could never happen. The cores of downtown and Midtown are growing increasingly linked, transformed into a vibrant center for business, sports and entertainment that is building confidence along with it.

Come next fall, Detroit will arguably be the most concentrated Big-League town in America, the only city with all four of its major sports franchises playing in the core downtown. Credit the small circle of moguls willing to harness their egos to recognize shared economic interests and how they can be maximized in the nation’s poorest major city.

Gores and Ilitch are now partners in yet-to-be-fully-defined ways in a new downtown arena. Gilbert and Gores are partnering to woo a Major League Soccer franchise to the city, complete with a promise to build a stadium on the half-built site of the failed Wayne County Jail.

That doesn’t happen often — except in Detroit, where the business of sports is as big as the sports themselves. Tuesday’s news conference quickly devolved into the confessions of a mutual admiration society: Gores lauds the leadership of Ilitch Holdings Inc. CEO Christopher Ilitch for his organization’s professionalism and vision; Duggan praises Ilitch for delivering on his promise to help bring the Pistons back home.

And NBA Commissioner Adam Silver praises all of them, after noting the example of Gilbert and leaving unsaid the estimated $2.5 billion his organization has invested in acquiring and renovating more than 90 buildings across downtown — an investment whose only rival, in dollar terms, is that of the Ilitchs’ District Detroit and related projects.

Are Gores and Ilitch doing this deal out of some sense of civic duty? Partly, maybe, judging by their sincere homages to the city. But these are business people who didn’t amass the means to become owners of professional franchises because they run separate chapters of the Benevolence Society.

This is business, too, and the fact that Ilitch, Gores and their negotiating teams have crafted a deal to return the Pistons to Detroit explains Gores’ cryptic remark: “There’s a bigger picture here. The math says we’re going to do a lot more than just an arena.”

You bet. Like, say, combining Gores’ Palace Sports & Entertainment with the Ilitch-owned Olympia Entertainment, closing The Palace of Auburn Hills and making Little Caesars Arena the region’s only venue for concerts and mega-acts?

A move like that would effectively eliminate one competitor from a field of, what, two, and enable Gores to share in the lucrative revenue associated with everything from Adele concerts to monster-truck pulls. That might take the sting out of the stranded investment in Palace upgrades that Team Gores will be leaving behind in Auburn Hills.

The principals weren’t discussing such crass details, content to bask in the glow of an announcement that is unambiguously good news for the city, its economy and its civic psyche. Detroit just put another score on the board.

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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.