Ilitch calls WSU biz school ‘biggest deal of my life’

Christine Ferretti, and Louis Aguilar
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A new Wayne State University business school named after Mike Ilitch was approved by its governing board Friday, a feat the billionaire says he regards as “the biggest deal of my life.”

The state-of-the-art facility will be constructed in the heart of the new Detroit Red Wings arena and its surrounding 45-block entertainment district.

A $40 million gift from the Ilitch family, approved by the Wayne State University Board of Governors, is the largest in the university’s history and one of the top 10 gifts in the country ever given to a public business school. It will fund the bulk of a $50 million project to construct the new school.

“It’s really the thrill of my life. I really do love the city so much. To see my name on that building, I feel like life is starting all over again,” Ilitch told reporters in a rare interview on Friday. “It’s a big deal. It’s probably the biggest deal in my life.”

The facility, to be constructed on the southwest corner of Woodward and Temple, will extend the Wayne State University campus south, into The District Detroit.

The Ilitches donated the land for the project and $35 million to build the school, along with a $5 million endowment. The university was also provided with a long-term land lease of up to 90 years at $1 per year.

The university had long considered moving its business school closer to downtown, said Robert Forsythe, dean of the business school. But after Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson toured the future arena site with Chris Ilitch, the concept of locating a new business school in the emerging arena district was soon born.

Rendering of the future Mike Ilitch School of Business at Wayne State University

“My parents are constantly looking for ways they can contribute and make our community a better place,” Chris Ilitch said. “When they heard about this, it was just such a natural.”

The university has already selected an architect and plans to begin interviewing construction managers next week. Officials hope that the exterior will be completed by August or September of 2017 and that classes will be offered beginning in January 2018.

The new school will be in the heart of what is envisioned as a densely populated area anchored by the new arena being built by the Ilitches.

The 120,000-square-foot building will serve more than 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The total project cost is slated at $50 million. The university expects to raise additional money through gifts. Any remaining balance will be covered through a university bond issue in the next calendar year.

The school could open new opportunities for students, with master’s degree focuses in sports- and entertainment-related industries.

Mike Ilitch is owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers. He and his wife, Marian, co-founded Little Caesars Pizza. Marian Ilitch owns the MotorCity Casino Hotel. They own and operate the Fox Theatre. The Ilitches’ Olympia Entertainment controls several other downtown performance venues.

Wilson on Friday touted the magnitude of the “transformative gift” and the Ilitch family’s loyalty to and investment in the city.

“They were here through the good, the bad and now, hopefully, the good again,” he said, adding that the university has done the same. “It is fitting that Wayne State and the Ilitch family are joining forces. For Detroit ... for the future.”

Board members all supported the measures during the special meeting, with the exception of Dana Alicia Thompson, who abstained. Thompson said she was not provided information she had requested prior to making her decision.

The Ilitches’ gift is part of Wayne State’s $750 million “Pivotal Movements” fundraising.

The family, its companies and foundations have given nearly $75 million to Detroit-based nonprofits over the past decade. In 2014, the Ilitches donated $8.5 million to the Wayne State University Department of Surgery, officials said.

The WSU school is just one in an expected string of major developments the Ilitch family may announce over the next year as it pursues its goal of creating a stable residential and retail area in the 45 blocks around the new arena. Currently, major sections are blighted or vacant.

The Ilitches have committed to invest at least another $200 million in private development in the 45-block district. The entire project has an estimated projected economic benefit of $1.8 billion.

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