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Detroit — The former Gold Dollar bar that was destroyed in a suspicious fire Monday is one of an estimated 34 empty buildings in the city that are controlled or owned by entities-linked to the powerful Ilitch organization, according to a Detroit News analysis. 

The blaze in the former underground rock venue on Cass Avenue where the Detroit garage-rock duo The White Stripes played their first-ever gig in August 1997, had been empty since 2001 when it was bought by an Ilitch-linked limited liability corporation in 2015.

The fire comes at a time when the Ilitch group faces increasing criticism for its failure to develop dozens of properties in a part of Detroit where there's been tremendous growth.

The building is part of a mass buy-up of land by entities linked to the Ilitch organization. The family-run conglomerate owns or controls 60% of the properties in the 50 blocks marketed as The District Detroit around Little Caesars Arena. The group controls 46 empty parcels and 24 vacant buildings in the arena district. The organization also owns 52 empty properties around its MotorCity Casino Hotel, which is not included in the District Detroit area. 

The former Gold Dollar is just past the northern border of The District Detroit. It's one of at least two vacant buildings and two empty lots owned an Ilitch-linked entity on the same Cass Avenue block of the Gold Dollar, property records show.

The Ilitches' Olympia Development of Michigan released a statement Tuesday: "Since we purchased the building in 2015, we were considering future plans and secured the building — including on-going monitoring, general maintenance work and an extensive clean up in and around the building. We will be working with the Detroit Fire Department in the coming days and weeks on next steps related to this building."

Detroit Fire Department Chief Robert Distelrath on Tuesday called the building "a loss." There were no injuries. The fire is being treated as "suspicious" mainly because the building has been vacant for years and there was no electrical or any other utility service, Distelrath said. 

"It doesn't necessarily mean it was arson," he said. The arson unit was still investigating Tuesday. 

There was also evidence of squatters using the building, Distelrath said

The former Gold Dollar is among the properties on the 3100 block of Cass Avenue purchased in 2015 for $2.2 million in a single sale, according to public records. The properties were then transferred a year later for $1 to an entity whose 2211 Woodward address is the downtown Fox Theatre. That's the headquarters of the Ilitch organization.

In December 2017, the News reported the roof in the back of the structure was gone. The building was already in decline when the Ilitch-linked entity bought it. 

"The building overall just kept getting worse," said Patrick Dorn, executive director of Cass Corridor Neighborhood Corp., a nonprofit that manages several affordable-housing apartments in the area. Dorn is a longtime resident of the neighborhood. After the 2017 News article revealed an Ilitch-linked entity had bought the building, the Iltich organization "cleaned up around it," Dorn said.

"But it was a Band-Aid," he said. Squatters were known to get into the building through the back, Dorn said.

The Gold Dollar bar was a beer garden in the 1930s and had become an underground gay bar by the 1960s, Elias Khalil, a neighborhood resident, business owner and co-author of "Detroit's Cass Corridor," told The Detroit News in 2017.

It was a haven for gay men and drag queens during an era of fierce discrimination, said Patrick Dorn, a longtime Cass Corridor resident and executive director of Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corp., a nonprofit that manages several affordable-housing apartments in the area. 

“Back in the 1970s it was hopping. It was the place to be — because really it was one of the few places to go when there was so much prejudice. It had a hell of a history,” Dorn said. 

The Ilitch family’s host of businesses include the Little Caesars Pizza chain and the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings. Marian Ilitch and her husband, Mike, who died in February 2017,  co-founded Little Caesars Pizza in 1959. The global franchise reports $4 billion in annual sales.

Marian Ilitch owns the MotorCity Casino Hotel. The Detroit Tigers are now in a family trust. Chris Ilitch, the son of Mike and Marian, is president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc. Their combined businesses employ 23,000 people, according to the company. Forbes estimates the family’s net worth at $5.8 billion.

laguilar@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN 

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