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Ilitches hire full-time team to jump-start Detroit development projects

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Little Caesars' first-ever Super Bowl ad isn't the only new strategy being tried by the family behind the Detroit-based pizza chain.

The Ilitch organization has hired about 40 people to figure out whether the family's decades-long goal of reviving dozens of blocks of Detroit property can become reality. 

Zarah Broglin (from left), Vice-President, ODM Construction,  Rian English, Vice-President of Government Affairs and Community Relations, Keith Bradford, Senior Vice-President, Olympia Development of Michigan, and Stefan Stration, Vice President of Development, Olympia Development of Michigan,  have a seat on the original Joe Louis Arena stadium seats at Little Caesars Arena.

The hiring of a permanent, large-scale real estate team is the first since the organization moved its headquarters from the suburbs to the Fox Theatre downtown in 1989, company officials told The Detroit News. 

The move comes as the Ilitch group faces withering criticism for relying on tax subsidies and holding on to blocks of empty land. 

The organization controls or owns some of the most popular venues in Detroit: Comerica Park, Little Caesars Arena, the Fox Theatre and the MotorCity Casino Hotel. Ilitch-linked entities currently own or control 157 unused properties, according to an ongoing analysis of public property records by The News. 

The United Artists Theatre at 150 Bagley near Park.

The major venues represent an estimated $1.5 billion of investment in Detroit by the Ilitch family, some of which came during an era when most businesses refused to move into the city. But as the group focuses on its blockbuster developments, other properties have remained in limbo — often for years, if not decades.  

The new hires — who came on board mainly in the past year — include executives and teams who, among other duties, will oversee the firm's overall development strategy, reach out to local residents and organizations, oversee construction projects and manage properties.

"We are insanely excited about what we are doing," said Keith Bradford, senior vice president of the Ilitch group's development company, Olympia Development of Michigan. He's a former Disney executive who oversaw the development of Disney Springs, a retail-entertainment district in Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida.

"I also understand the concerns," he said, referring to the criticism about failure to meet development timelines. "I get that maybe (various developments) has not progressed as far as some would like. Do I like the criticism I read? No. But it doesn't deter the commitment we have." 

The Women's City Club of Detroit building on the corner of Elizabeth and Park.

The Ilitch organization has had the Olympia Development division for decades. But the company has relied on outside consultants to help it acquire properties and essentially figure out what to do with them. 

While Olympia will still rely on the outside firms Plante Moran Cresa and CBRE Group to help woo potential tenants and some financial analysis, the overall strategy for the company's collection of properties now is being overseen by various full-time Olympia Development employees, executives overseeing the change said this week.  

The Ilitches began stockpiling property in the area in 1987 when the company agreed to move its headquarters from the suburbs to the Fox Theatre. In some form, the Ilitches have been chasing the goal of reviving the area around its venues since at least 1992, when they began searching for a new baseball stadium for the Tigers. But the group's land purchases have essentially stopped for several years now, public records show. 

The old Eddystone building on Sproat near Cass Avenue, across the street from Little Caesars Arena.

One long-deferred goal appears to be progressing — filling the first historic building owned by an Ilitch-linked entity since the Fox Theatre and Hockeytown Cafe. The building is the former Women's City Club at 2110 Park Avenue near Grand Circus Park. A business called Spaces, a Swiss-based company that will offer flexible office and co-working facilities, will lease most of the six-story building. The firm is expected to move in by early next year. 

It's one of seven developments the new Olympia team says is on track to becoming reality. 

The new team is taking a more integrated approach to its development goals, the executives said this week. 

The new head of community outreach says in her first 60 days on the job, she has had "more than 70 one-on-one conversations"  with people from various parts of the communities and city officials.

The old Eddystone building (center), between two parking structures with LCA in the background, on Sproat near Cass.

Rian English, vice president of government affairs and community relations, said those concerns are now being directly heard by other key members of Olympia Development.

One result is Olympia is now working with the city to beef up a database of Detroit businesses the Ilitch group can reach out to, English said. Ilitch tenants, residents and nearby businesses also have expressed interest in coverage from the Ilitch security operation, including surveillance cameras and security personnel.

"I go and talk to people who listen. People are cautiously optimistic," English said. 

Critics of the organization remain skeptical of the new initiatives.

Stefan Stration (left), Vice President of Development, Olympia Development of Michigan, and Keith Bradford, Senior Vice-President, Olympia Development of Michigan, at Little Caesars Arena spoke about future developments.

Francis Grunow is the former chair of a neighborhood advisory committee that met with Ilitch officials for several years about the firm's plan to invest in the 50 blocks surrounding the Ilitch-run major venues. Ilitch-linked entities own or control at least 60% of the properties those blocks, a News analysis shows.

"There are too many questions whether they can actually evolve their strategy beyond land speculation," Grunow said.

Grunow is among the residents currently opposing the way an Ilitch-owned building, the United Artists building, may get developed. A third-party developer chosen by the Ilitch organization insists the building's historic theater must be demolished to make the project financially feasible for a residential development. The Ilitch group is backing the developer's decision to raze the theater.

Retail/restaurant space on both sides of Columbia W. between Park and Woodward.

"The prospect of an Ilitch-owned building that actually gets renovated positively sends a shiver down my spine," Grunow said. But the potential razing of the United Artists theater may mean the Ilitch group will face ongoing battles with historic preservationists as further development plans advance. 

Meanwhile, the Ilitich group is hoping to make an advertising splash this weekend with its first Super Bowl ad. But it's not about its real estate holdings.

The commercial will tout the pizza chain's new home delivery service. Little Caesars is the third-largest pizza chain in the United States, behind Pizza Hut and Domino's Pizza, according to the trade industry publication Pizza Today. 

laguilar@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN