Detroit council backs agreements to bring back Pistons

Christine Ferretti and Jennifer Chambers, DetroitNews

Detroit — With a shot clock ticking down on the Detroit Pistons’ intentions to return to the city next season, the City Council signed off on several key agreements to allow the franchise to do so.

The panel on Tuesday voted 7-2 in favor of a $20 million brownfield tax incentive, development plan and associated community benefits for the Pistons planned practice facility and headquarters. Council President Brenda Jones and Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez voted no.

The $83 million complex, to be operated with Henry Ford Health System, is slated to be built in the city’s New Center area.

The Pistons intend to play in the new Little Caesars Arena this fall, which would be the first time the National Basketball Association team had its home court in Detroit in 39 years.

While Tuesday’s votes finalized approvals for the team’s practice facility and headquarters, it isn’t the last approval needed for the complex deal.

On June 20, council will take up proposed bonds for modifications to the Little Caesars arena to accommodate the Pistons as well as the Downtown Development Authority’s overall development plan. It will be asked to sign off on the issuance of $34.5 million in taxpayer-funded DDA bonds for those changes.

The New Center facility also will proceed only if the Pistons get the approval needed to play at Little Caesars Arena, which will be the home ice of the Detroit Red Wings. The Pistons must also gain approvals from the state and NBA.

The deal faces a legal challenge that could delay the funding part of the deal and potentially get the City Council involved in a lawsuit.

On Tuesday, a lawsuit that seeks to prevent City Council on taking the June 20 vote was given a June 19 hearing date by U.S. District Court Judge Mark Goldsmith.

The suit, filed by Robert Davis and D. Etta Wilcoxon, contends Detroit residents have a right to vote on the bonds before City Council votes on the issue. Both Davis and Wilcoxon said Tuesday after the hearing they aim to include City Council in the lawsuit.

Tuesday’s city approvals came amid both objections and praise from community members and worries from some council members who want assurances — beyond voluntary community benefits offered by the Pistons — that residents will see jobs and other opportunities as result of the team’s relocation from Auburn Hills.

Jones said she’s in favor of the Pistons coming to Detroit but the city’s residents and its businesses are her top priority.

“You know we have seen and we have heard good things,” Jones said. “... If there is good faith, put it in writing.”

Castaneda-Lopez cited similar worries over the agreements, including a lack of guaranteed opportunities for Detroit youth and jobs for residents.

Already, the Pistons’ developers agreed at least 51 percent of the construction workforce for the headquarters will be city residents and the team will spend $2.5 million to renovate more than 60 outdoor recreational basketball facilities in the city over six years.

But Castaneda-Lopez has urged them to go further.

“I’m not in support of the deal as presented,” she said. “There needs to be more, something concrete that we can actually measure and that’s tangible in addressing income within the city of Detroit, addressing employment rates and addressing access to educational and recreational opportunities.”

Income tax projections for players alone from home games is $4.96 million through the proposed 10-year abatement. For coaches and others, it’s nearly $3 million, totaling $8 million, officials said.

Officials with the Pistons’ organization applauded the council’s Tuesday vote.

“Our organization is pleased with the result of today’s approvals as this is an important step in our return to Detroit,” Pistons’ spokesman Kevin Grigg said Tuesday. “We are excited about our move back to the city and continuing our efforts to impact the community on multiple fronts.”

The council’s Tuesday approvals cover the “memorandum of understanding,” which is an agreement between the city and Palace Sports and Entertainment for the project.

According to the memorandum, the Pistons will play their home games at the arena, relocate their operations and headquarters to the city, pay all costs of the project that are not funded by DDA bonds, pay maintenance costs of capital improvements of the project, and enter into a binding agreement setting up community benefits to be received by the city.

The development plan includes modifications being made to the arena and the construction of the practice facility.

The brownfield agreement covers tax incentives and tax revenues proposed to be captured from the property. It also includes financing for environmental issues at the property.

Numerous residents, youth advocates and others remain divided over the Pistons planned return to Detroit.

Resident Tyrone Carter spoke in support of the proposals, saying the most important thing is to “bring them home.” Other work to build up the agreement, he said, can be done later.

“There is no perfect deal, but you can build on a deal,” Carter told the council during public comment. “We have a generation that has not been attached to the Pistons. Going to see the Pistons now is like a field trip. It’s like going to Cedar Point. Bring them home.”

But others, such as Linda Campbell, a resident who has been among a group fighting for community benefits in the city, said she isn’t pleased.

“We don’t believe it’s a win-win. We believe it’s a win-lose,” she said. “We don’t understand why they are attempting to negotiate a false deal with Detroiters, which actually represents very little for Detroiters. They haven’t even offered a decent scholarship for our children.”

Last month, the council’s Planning and Economic Development committee held a public hearing on the Pistons’ headquarters and practice facility, voicing concerns about the impact tax captures would have on local entities, such as the Detroit Public Schools Community District, the Detroit Public Library and others.

Leaders worried they would lose money as part of tax deals for the arena and Pistons facility.

Beyond the practice facility, several members of council raised concerns with how many public dollars have gone into the Little Caesars Arena project and what they would get in return.

So far, about 62 percent or nearly $539 million of the project is from private financing and the rest — $324 million overall — is government financed. The arena and other developments are estimated to cost a total of $862.9 million.

Staff writer Louis Aguilar contributed