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Detroit — The former Gold Dollar bar, a piece of Cass Corridor's avant-garde past, was demolished Monday after a mysterious fire in July ravaged the vacant building owned by an entity linked to the billionaire owners of Little Caesars and the Detroit Tigers. 

The building has been empty since 2001. It was bought by an Ilitch-linked limited liability corporation in 2015. The building had a collapsed roof since at least December 2017. Squatters frequented the building, Detroit Fire Department officials said. On the night of July 22, what was left of the damaged structure was destroyed by the fire. 

On Monday, a demolition crew had taken down most of the building by early afternoon.  A spokesman for the Ilitch organization could not be reached for comment Monday.

The former Gold Dollar is one of an estimated 34 empty buildings in the city that are controlled or owned by entities-linked to the Ilitch group, according to a Detroit News analysis

The cause of the fire is still unknown, deputy fire commissioner Dave Fornell said Monday. Arson "hasn't been ruled out," but the blaze could also be ruled accidental, Fornell said. Video surveillance of the area shows squatters entering and leaving the building at various times, Fornell said. 

The Cass Avenue building had been a rare haven for gay men and drag queens as early as the 1960s. From 1996-2001, it became an experimental performance space. The Grammy-winning band the White Stripes played its first live show ever at the small venue in August 1997.

The building was 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 Development Corp., a nonprofit that manages several affordable-housing apartments in the area. Dorn is a longtime resident of the neighborhood

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 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. 

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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