Metro Detroit’s 2017: From LCA to Conyers

The Detroit News

The year of 2017 was filled with nostalgic goodbyes to some of Metro Detroit’s beloved sports venues, but the goodbye from one of Detroit’s most established politicians amid scandal grabbed the biggest headlines of the year.

The year was also marked by the continued revival in Detroit’s downtown, its mayor, Mike Duggan, securing a second term, and a mid-summer review of Detroit’s most painful year of the 20th century: 1967.

Woodward got electrified with QLine streetcars while city, sports and business leaders joined forces in attempts to attract an online retailer and Major League Soccer to come to the Motor City.

And so with that, here is a look-back at some of the most memorable moments of the year.

John Conyers

A stunning resignation

Civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. resigned on Dec. 5 amid allegations that he sexually harassed staffers, ending a nearly 53-year career in which he became the longest-serving African-American in congressional history.

The resignation by the 88-year-old lawmaker — which he termed an immediate “retirement” — capped a whirlwind 15 days of accusations in which five women publicly said Conyers inappropriately touched them or made unwanted sexual advances. Conyers and his attorney, Arnold Reed, steadfastly denied the allegations, but the congressman stepped down as the House Judiciary ranking member when the House Ethics Committee opened an investigation.

Conyers, who was hospitalized because of dizziness and heart pains during the controversy, told WPZR-FM’s (102.7) Mildred Gaddis in a disjointed phone interview that “my legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now.” He was most well known for getting passed in 1983 a law creating the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday.

The firestorm was sparked Nov. 20 when Buzzfeed reported Conyers reached a financial settlement with an unnamed former staffer in 2015 for $27,000 to settle a wrongful firing complaint.

Marion Brown broke the confidentiality agreement on Nov. 30, telling the NBC’s “Today Show” that she was fired for refusing his sexual advances and requests to “touch it.” It stirred calls by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and four members of Michigan’s House delegation for Conyers to resign, something Reed said the congressman wouldn’t be pressured to do.

These developments also followed a Detroit News report on Nov. 28 in which former staffer Deanna Maher became the first woman to go public with sexual harassment allegations, telling The News that the Detroit Democrat made unwanted advances toward her three times from 1997 to 1999.

Public corruption probe

A federal investigation of public corruption in Metro Detroit widened in 2017, as prosecutors focused on alleged misconduct surrounding Macomb County trash contracts, the county’s Public Works Office and Detroit towing titan Gasper Fiore.

By year’s end, 18 people had been charged and 14 had been convicted or entered plea deals to federal charges. Among them:

■Fiore, who pleaded guilty Dec. 20 to a bribery conspiracy charge, admitting that he bribed former Clinton Township trustee Dean Reynolds to obtain a towing contract.

■Celia Washington, a former Detroit deputy police chief accused of pocketing a $3,000 bribe from Fiore, who is expected to plead guilty Tuesday, according to federal court records.

■Chuck Rizzo, former CEO of trash hauler Rizzo Environmental Services, who pleaded guilty in November to bribing Macomb County politicians and stealing money from the company.

Documents unsealed briefly in federal court in late December also showed that investigators had scrutinized other public officials during the probe, including Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Wayne County Circuit Judge Vonda Evans, former state Reps. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi and Brian Banks, and Detroit City Councilman Gabe Leland; none have been charged with a crime.

Mike Ilitch didn’t get to see it, but Little Caesars Arena finally opened its doors to fans this fall, with the Red Wings and Pistons moving in from Joe Louis Arena and The Palace of Auburn Hills respectively.

Hello, dough-rena; goodbye, Palace and Joe

This year marked the grand opening of the long-awaited Little Caesars Arena — the new home to both the Red Wings and Pistons.

The arena was a vision for billionaire businessman Mike Ilitch, who died in February. Ilitch of the Little Caesars empire was known for resurrecting a dying inner-city neighborhood by moving his corporate offices there in 1988, renovating the historic Fox Theatre, building Comerica Park across the street as well as Little Caesars Arena.

The $862.9 million arena officially opened its doors in September and has already hosted concerts for major artists, including Kid Rock, Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney and Jay-Z.

Construction on the 20,000-plus seat LCA began in spring 2015 on what was mostly vacant land along Woodward near Cass Corridor. The arena anchors a 50-block area that officials have branded the District Detroit. It includes mixed-use development such as offices, stores and apartments.

The opening of the LCA forced two longstanding sports venues, Joe Louis Arena and The Palace of Auburn Hills, to close.

The Palace is up for sale, however, it’s unclear if there are interested buyers.

Detroit is expected to demolish the Joe Louis Arena and possibly replace it with high-rise apartment buildings and restaurants on the site in the future. Olympia Entertainment, which manages the Red Wings, said it planned to be completely moved out of the Joe Louis Arena by Dec. 31.

A bankruptcy agreement says the city must raze the building within 90 days of lease agreements expiring. After that. the city is required to give the land to bond insurer Financial Guaranty Insurance Co.

In December, a seemingly forgotten venue, the Pontiac Silverdome, finally met its end — but it took two demolition events to get the best of the abandoned birdbath.

The Detroit Historical Museum was among the many to highlight the city’s 1967 unrest for the 50th anniversary over the summer.

1967’s uprising remembered

The 50th anniversary of the 1967 uprising was recounted during the month of July across Detroit and the world.

Newspapers issued special editions examining the event a half-century later, bus tours followed the events of 1967 across the city, a 50th anniversary historical marker was erected at Gordon Park in Detroit and the film “Detroit,”directed by Kathryn Bigelow, made its world premiere in the Motor City.

All focused on the irrefutable facts: 43 people — residents, visitors, first responders, looters, innocent bystanders — died amid the chaos and events following. Hundreds more were injured or left homeless and thousands more were arrested. There would be unrest and riots in 127 cities during 1967, but the events of Detroit would become the most notorious.

“Detroit ’67: Perspectives” is an innovative exhibit on display at the Detroit Historical Museum about the events surrounding July 23, 1967. It runs through 2019. Marlowe Stoudamire, project director, said the exhibition is allowing visitors to better understand the events of July 1967, what led up to them, where people are today and how to connect to efforts moving Detroit forward.

“One of the great contributions was creating a shared dialogue and meaningful conversations that hadn’t happen. As a region we would have been farther along if those conversations had happened in the past,” Stoudamire said. “These were conversations that were 50 years in the making that had not happened.”

A 242-page spiral-bound proposal to convince Amazon to operate a second headquarters in Detroit was submitted in October that included the state of the Michigan’s offer of extensive tax breaks for three decades.

Bid for Amazon’s HQ2

Business, civic and political leaders throughout southeast Michigan rallied together this fall in an effort to convince to operate a second headquarters in Detroit. The collaborative effort resulted in a 242-page spiral-bound proposal submitted in October that included the state of the Michigan’s offer of extensive tax breaks for three decades. That would be in addition to $106 million in taxpayer subsidies from Windsor, Ontario, which is also part of the pitch.

“I think one of the strongest aspects of it is we have a regional and bi-national proposal, which really addresses the long-term needs of Amazon,” Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, told The Detroit News recently. “I think we did a great job with the intel; we got of what they’re looking for. What we know they wanted for this initial review, we think we nailed it.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan tapped billionaire Dan Gilbert to lead a bid committee in September, shortly after Amazon announced plans to invest $5 billion and create 50,000 high-paying jobs averaging $100,000 a year in a second headquarter that Amazon calls “HQ2.” Company officials say the new site would approximate its Seattle campus.

As a financial incentive, the state of Michigan, Wayne County and the city of Detroit have made available to Amazon an incentive package that would include the Michigan Thrive Initiative and Good Jobs for Michigan programs. The dollar amount for the incentive package was redacted from documents.

Amazon is expected to make an announcement in 2018.

Larry Nassar

Scandal at MSU

The scope of the sexual assaults committed against young gymnasts by Dr. Larry Nassar came into sharper focus in 2017 as victims came forward and the disgraced sports doctor pleaded guilty to numerous state and federal charges.

Scrutiny also grew over how Nassar’s former employer, Michigan State University, had handled allegations of sexual abuse against him, leading to calls for school president Lou Anna Simon to resign.

Nassar, 54, pleaded guilty in July to possessing 37,000 images of child pornography that were found on his work laptop after he was fired from MSU in September 2016, when the first allegation of sexual assault against him came to light.

Nassar was sentenced in December to 60 years in prison for the federal child porn conviction.

In November, he pleaded guilty to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Eaton and Ingham counties, admitting he assaulted girls under the guise of medical treatment between 1998 and 2015. He will be sentenced in those cases in January and faces a minimum of 25 years in prison under his plea agreements.

During 2017, several Olympic gymnasts, including Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas, claimed during television interviews or on social media that Nassar assaulted them.

More than 140 women have joined a civil lawsuit against Nassar, and 125 complained to MSU officials, some of them alleging that the university failed to act on allegations made years earlier.

In December, state Attorney General Bill Schuette asked MSU to release the results of an internal investigation into the school’s handling of the Nassar allegations by former federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. The university said it could not release a report because no such document exists.

In response, political leaders including House Speaker Tom Leonard and gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer called for an independent investigation of MSU.

The idea of a streetcar running through downtown Detroit was realized in May when the QLine debuted on Woodward.

All aboard the QLine

The idea of a streetcar running through downtown Detroit once had naysayers dismissing it as a pipe dream.

But that dream was realized in May when the streetcars began rolling up and down Woodward Avenue from Campus Martius to New Center.

“This QLine was declared to be dead more times than John Travolta’s career,” quipped Gilbert, a primary backer of the streetcar system at its unveiling ceremony on May 12.

It marked the first time in 61 years a streetcar once again rolled down a major Detroit thoroughfare with regular passengers.

The $140 million streetcar project, 10 years in the making, now stretches 3.3 miles along Woodward.

While there were some bumps along the way — ridership in the middle of September was down to 60 percent of what it was before free rides ended earlier that month — it appears to be successful enough that evening hours have been permanently extended and additional drivers have been hired and trained, according to M-1 Rail spokesman Dan Lijana.

“In seven months, QLine has made significant operational improvements and started a dialogue about the need to change how residents and visitors move throughout Metro Detroit,” Lijana said Friday. “The streetcar generated $7 billion in economic impact and is helping create a more walkable and vibrant Woodward Corridor.”

To help passengers acclimate to the new procedures, they were treated to free rides from May 12 through Labor Day, with ambassadors on board some streetcars helping with ways to pay.

There was an average of about 3,000 daily rides between Sept. 5-17, compared to 5,000 daily rides during the free period. There had been a daily ridership high of about 5,500 in August, according to Lijana.

Lijana said more recent ridership numbers will be revealed in January.

Wayne County and Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures spent a good chunk of 2017 negotiating a $520 million deal that would bring a new criminal justice complex to Detroit and replace the unfinished county jail site in Greektown with mixed-use development.

Change of plans

One of the more surprising developments in 2017 involved Wayne County and billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert being close to inking a $520 million deal that would bring a new criminal justice complex to Detroit and replace the unfinished county jail site in Greektown with mixed-use development.

The county and Gilbert’s Rock Ventures spent a good chunk of 2017 negotiating how this vision could become a reality.

Earlier this month, the county scrapped a proposal from competing firm, Walsh Construction, to complete the unfinished jail site.

Gilbert had initially proposed to include an MLS soccer stadium in development on the unfinished jail site but that idea was dropped for a Ford Field bid.

Meanwhile, the Detroit City Council supported the Gilbert deal by approving a land swap that gives the county 11 acres of a Department of Transportation property on Warren Avenue in exchange for the shuttered American Motor Corp. headquarters on Detroit’s west side.

Gilbert would build the criminal justice complex, including a jail, on the DDOT site, according to the county.

Now, the swap needs approval from the Wayne County Commission and the Wayne County Land Bank Board before it is final.

County officials expect the commission vote to take place in 2018.

Ford ousts Fields for Hackett

Ford Motor Co. gave CEO Mark Fields the boot in May amid falling stock prices and a failure to push ahead in advanced technology and new means of mobility such as ride-sharing.

His replacement, Jim Hackett — a former Steelcase chief and University of Michigan athletic director — was chosen to be a “change agent” for the Dearborn-based automaker. Hackett was pulled up from his position as president of Ford Smart Mobility to become president and CEO of Ford.

The uncharacteristically swift move for the Blue Oval came as pressure ratcheted from Wall Street investors and small shareholders. At the time Fields was ousted, the company said the automaker failed to move quickly enough under the longtime Ford executive — he had been chief operating officer before replacing superstar CEO Alan Mulally in July 2014.

In the end, Fields didn’t prove that he could effectively manage the Blue Oval’s transition from a century-old automaker to what it calls an “auto-and-mobility company.”

Nikolai Vitti took the helm of the Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2017, overseeing about 6,000 employees, 50,000 students and an annual fiscal budget of $660 million.

A new chapter for Detroit’s schools

This year served as a fresh slate for the Detroit Public Schools Community District and its newly elected school board.

Bailout legislation in late 2016 wiped the district’s debt clean and in January returned the city’s schools to local control after seven years of state oversight. Among the board’s biggest decisions: hiring Nikolai Vitti in May as the district’s new superintendent. Vitti had been superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla.

Vitti leads Michigan’s largest district, overseeing about 6,000 employees, 50,000 students and an annual fiscal budget of $660 million. His pay started at $295,000.

Vitti said the district is moving forward with its parent academy and an advisory council at every school to engage parents. It is also preparing a request for proposal to evaluate all district facilities to determine if they meet current standards and to identify what changes need to be made to update them for 2018-19 school year.

Since he took office, Vitti has also worked to reduce a districtwide teacher shortage, which was larger than last school year, in part because the district reacquired 10 of its schools from the Education Achievement Authority, which was dissolved on June 30. Only about 50 percent of EAA teachers had reapplied for jobs in the district.

All EAA schools and facilities were returned to the DPSCD.

In July, the Detroit Federation of Teachers ratified a three-year collective bargaining agreement that included raises for teachers. The contract has a 3 percent increase in 2017-18 and a 4.13 percent increase in 2018-19 as well as a $1,750 bonus for some teachers with advanced degrees. Union officials said the contract provides raises for the first time in a decade and unfreezes steps.

Staff writers Nicquel Terry, Jennifer Chambers, Shawn D. Lewis, Candice Williams, Nora Naughton, Richard Burr and Stephen Murphy contributed.