Detroit bid now puts MLS team at Ford Field

Candice Williams, and Nicquel Terry

Detroit — Officials working to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Detroit called a major audible Thursday: a change in venues.

Ford Field is now the preferred site for a professional soccer team, according to the group spearheading the effort to bring a team to the city.

Ford Field is now the preferred site for a professional soccer team, according to the group spearheading the effort to bring a team to the city. This plan replaces previous efforts to build a soccer stadium on the site of Wayne County’s unfinished jail on Gratiot in the Greektown area.

The plan for the new location was announced alongside an expanded partnership between Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that will now include the William Clay Ford family, which owns the Detroit Lions. The group hopes the addition of the Ford family and Ford Field will make for a successful bid for an MLS franchise in Detroit.

“After careful study and analysis, we concluded that the downtown location of an MLS stadium is paramount to an MLS team’s success,” said Detroit Pistons Vice Chairman Arn Tellem, who is leading communications between the Detroit bid and MLS, in a statement. “And no MLS stadium sits in a better downtown location than Ford Field. We also saw additional evidence that multi-use stadiums can be very successful in the right situation, and we believe our new proposal is superior for the city and for MLS in every way.”

Hosting Detroit soccer at Ford Field replaces previous efforts to build a soccer stadium on the site of Wayne County’s unfinished jail on Gratiot in the Greektown area.

Matt Cullen, principal for Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, said that Ford Field’s potential opened the group’s eyes to a possibility better than the Gratiot site.

“From the time we started working on the Gratiot site, we have always been focused on the importance of a great mixed-use development at the gateway to downtown Detroit, soccer was just a potential component of our vision,” Cullen said. “But once we better understood Ford Field’s unique attributes, including the recent renovations and a bowl design that is perfectly suited for soccer, we decided to change course.”

Ford Field, which opened in 2002 and recently underwent $100 million in upgrades, has been evaluated by Rossetti, a Detroit-based architectural firm, and was determined the football stadium could be developed into a state-of-the-art soccer stadium as well, officials said.

“We were recently informed that the partnership between Tom Gores and Dan Gilbert has amended its application to include the William Clay Ford family. The amended application also states that Ford Field is the group’s preferred stadium site,” according to a statement released by MLS on Thursday afternoon.

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MLS officials added they have not had an opportunity to fully evaluate the amended application. They did note, however, that they prioritize soccer-specific stadiums as a criteria when selecting MLS expansion markets.

Earlier this summer, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said the county was attempting to reach an agreement on a $520.3 million offer from Rock Ventures for the creation of a new criminal justice complex to be built elsewhere in the city, paving the way for Gilbert’s blockbuster Greektown development. Thursday’s announcement appears to have altered plans for a soccer stadium in Greektown but not a new criminal justice complex near Interstate 75 and Warren.

Cullen said Thursday that Rock Ventures has expressed to the county they are still committed to building out a new criminal justice complex on Warren and I-75. They also plan to bring a mixed-use development on the Gratiot site.

“Today’s news could eventually open up other exciting options for Gratiot in the future,” Evans said in a statement. “It would be great to land an MLS team at Ford Field and bring other new investment to Gratiot, but this doesn’t change the path forward for us to address our unfinished jail.”

Gilbert’s proposal has been in competition with Chicago-based Walsh Construction’s plans to finish the jail site at its current location on Gratiot.

“Wayne County’s focus is to complete negotiations with Rock Ventures on a new state-of-the-art criminal justice center on the DDOT property, which is the best option,” Evans said. “Gratiot, however, is still in play and our mission is to get the result that is in the best interest of Wayne County’s 1.7 million residents. That is my first priority, and to that end I’m unwavering.”

Rock Ventures has proposed building a criminal justice complex near I-75 and Warren for the county with a 2,280-bed jail that would cost at least $520.3 million. The county would be on the hook for $380 million, plus the cost of acquiring the land from the city. Rock Ventures vowed to cover the risk for all cost overruns. Rock Ventures anticipates the criminal justice complex would be completed by Nov. 5, 2020.

Wayne County officials announced earlier this month that they struck a tentative deal for a land swap with Detroit that gives the county a portion of a Detroit Department of Transportation property near I-75 and Warren in exchange for the shuttered American Motors Corp. headquarters on Plymouth near Schaefer on the city’s west side.

The land swap is a key piece to the $520.3 million proposal by Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., to build the jail on the DDOT property under the condition that Wayne County acquires the land from the city.

Alternatively, Walsh pitched a plan to complete the existing jail site with two options: One had 1,608 beds at $269 million and the other called for 2,200 beds at $317.6 million.

Jim Martinez, a spokesman for Evans, said if Wayne County reaches a deal with Rock Ventures, it’s unclear exactly what would happen to the Gratiot site.

“We are still in negotiations with Rock, so it’s premature to comment on anything beyond that. This does open up other options for Gratiot,” Martinez said.

Martinez also said that finishing the half-built jail at Gratiot still remains an option. In September, the county extended a $500,000 stipend agreement with Walsh to keep the firm’s county jail proposal on the table.

Evans has said in previous interviews that he hoped settle a deal with Gilbert by year’s end.

While Detroit is not guaranteed an MLS franchise, Gilbert originally joined forces with Gores to make the city’s case for one. Gores-owned Platinum Equity and Gilbert-owned Rock Ventures want a franchise together, apparently now with the William Clay Ford family.

A dozen cities are trying to woo the MLS as it weighs expansion possibilities. The professional soccer league plans to add four teams — two are expected to be confirmed by the end of this year, according to the MLS.

The group touts Ford Field as having characteristics that would make MLS successful there. They noted the field hosted USA Soccer international matches in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2015.

Among those attributes:

■ Ford Field has undergone more than $100 million in privately financed capital improvements within the last year.

■ The seating pitch produces a fan sight-line slope of 17 degrees in the lower level.

■ Ford Field’s location inside the central business district and downtown setting.

■ Various seating configurations that can support crowds ranging from 26,000 to 64,000.

“This partnership allows us to bring Major League Soccer to a first-class facility inside our growing sports and entertainment district and eliminates the potential request for Detroit tax dollars to construct another new stadium,” Mayor Mike Duggan, a proponent of bringing an MLS team to Detroit, said in a statement on Thursday.

Construction on the original $220 million county jail project in Greektown began in 2011, under then-Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano. That 2,000-bed project across the street from the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice was later halted in June 2013 after $100 million in overruns and charges of corruption.

About $151 million was spent in construction, acquisition and design of the jail, with much of the work done underground, according to officials.

The half-finished jail has sat unused at a cost of $1.3 million a month, county officials estimate.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN