New plans for old Tiger Stadium

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

A site where the Tigers played for more than 100 years, sacred to some but thwarted in gaining any permanent plan or development, appears to have found a new, baseball-rooted identity.

An athletic complex that could host 15,000-20,000 or more youths a year and would carry the precise measurements of Tiger Stadium's baseball outfield is part of a $15.5 million project that already has drawn a federal grant of $3 million for its launch.

The new facility, which could break ground next year and be completed in late 2017, is a joint project of Detroit Police Athletic League and the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy. The dual effort was approved in December by the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. Detroit PAL would open a 9,300-square-foot headquarters at the 91/2-acre site.

The sports complex meshes with a $33 million plan called The Corner, also approved in December by the Economic Development Corp., which will bring a four-story building and 30,000 square feet of retail space.

Also part of the project headed by Larson Realty Group of Bloomfield Hills will be construction of 102 residential rental units and, along Trumbull Avenue, 24 town homes designed in the motif of Corktown's historical row houses.

The athletic field, however, is to be the site's public square. Designed by Pendulum Studio of Kansas City, Missouri, it is tentatively planned to hold soccer and football games, as well as baseball, and perhaps lacrosse, cheerleading events and day camps, on a synthetic turf field essential for the heavy three-season use envisioned.

It will house a gated entryway, 2,500 spectator seats, a covered pavilion and dugouts, locker rooms, a scoreboard, a banquet facility, ticket booths and an interactive museum that will honor more than a century of sports history at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull avenues in the Corktown neighborhood of downtown Detroit.

Raising $12.5 million needed to finalize the plan dubbed "Kids at The Corner" will be the focus of a kickoff dinner Thursday at the Detroit Athletic Club.

'A real synergy'

Carl Levin, who retired in December following 36 years as a United States senator from Michigan, was pivotal in winning a $3 million seed grant awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"The key for me, always, was the field," said Levin, a Detroit native who in retirement is planning to teach at an undisclosed university and to live with his wife, Barbara, in Lafayette Park. "It's a unique location that inspires people. It's going to give young players an opportunity where they can reach for the stars.

"One of the reasons I got involved in helping with the appropriation," Levin said, "is that it was going to the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy rather than to the city. I didn't want the money used for anything other than the purpose for which it was intended. And, with PAL, I think there's a real synergy in having its headquarters alongside the field."

A baseball field that first welcomed the Tigers in 1896 was home to its last big league game in 1999, after which the Tigers relocated to Comerica Park.

The site, which over generations had several names — Bennett Park, Navin Field, Briggs Stadium and, finally, Tiger Stadium — was for Detroit fans all but consecrated by the careers of Tigers Hall of Fame players Ty Cobb, Mickey Cochrane, Charlie Gehringer, Hal Newhouser, Al Kaline, etc.

It was also a stage for baseball demigods on the level of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Nolan Ryan, all of whom either played there during road series in Detroit, or as part of World Series or All-Star games at the site.

12,000 athletes,1,500 teams

Efforts to establish lasting monuments or development projects at a hallowed address have gone nowhere in the years since Tiger Stadium closed and was later demolished.

But with HUD's grant to the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, which held a trust on the Tiger Stadium site, a path was cleared for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and the city's Economic Development Corp. to bring aboard PAL and erect its new headquarters.

PAL has a 46-year lineage as a Detroit youth sports organization that involves regionally more than 12,000 athletes and 1,500 teams.

"I think this is going to take off," said Thom Linn, a partner at Miller Canfield law offices in Detroit and president of the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy, which also promotes Corktown businesses. "The Corktown community has had quite a resurgence, and PAL's got a lot of friends.

"You have the addition of a lot of people who cherish and celebrate the history of this site. And, in the big picture, the money PAL's raising is a lot of money — but it's not a lot of money. I don't want to diminish the goal ($12.5 million), but compared with what people (businesses) pay for Super Bowl ads, or what some donors might spend on other things, I think this is going to happen."

That was the conclusion from Richner & Richner, of Ann Arbor, which advises nonprofits on project viability, and which in September judged the plan achievable as part of a 15-page feasibility study.

"With this same level of commitment and care applied to addressing the identified challenges and capitalizing on its assets," the R&R report said, referencing PAL's energies and resources, "our professional opinion at this juncture is that Detroit PAL can expect to achieve its fundraising goal. ..."

The $15.5 million price tag includes:

* $11 million for project construction and redevelopment.

* A sustainability fund of $2.151 million for the first year of programs.

* $2 million in operational funds for the first three years in PAL's new headquarters.

* $285,000 for "Kids at The Corner" campaign costs.

Money from businesses, philanthropic groups and from private donations — brick walks commemorating benefactors are planned — will finance a facility designed to provide nearly a year-round menu of youth sports, said Tim Richey, Detroit PAL's CEO.

"I think the difference here," Richey said, speaking of a plan that has met with more support than past ventures, "is the connection between history and the site — and kids from so many neighborhoods having a chance to play there.

"It just makes a lot of sense for people. Practically speaking, the DEGC is finally on board, the mayor is on board, and there are probably five or so (Detroit City Council) members who played or coached in PAL."

Spending deadline

The project, however, is dealing with a deadline. In order to collect the $3 million in HUD funds, all of the allocated money must be spent on construction costs by October 2016.

The calendar cutoff could be a benefit, said one of the project's enthusiasts, Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, a philanthropic group devoted to assisting Metro Detroit children.

"The urgency for federal dollars creates a demand for people to invest quickly and to make decisions quickly," Allen said, using the term "our home" to describe the old Tiger Stadium grounds.

Thursday's fundraiser is part of a program that already has attracted nearly 40 high-profile names and their influence.

A 16-member "Hall of Fame Roster" includes Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan; Detroit Police Chief James Craig; Levin and his successor as Democratic U.S. senator, Gary Peters; as well as Wayne Count Executive Warren Evans; and former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

Kaline and other former Tigers stars Willie Horton and Alan Trammell are part of the roster, as is Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and Joe Schmidt, the great Lions linebacker from the 1950s and '60s who later became Lions head coach.

Leadership team

Also formed: a 22-person campaign leadership team, composed mostly of Metro Detroit business leaders, but listing also Martin Mayhew, Lions general manager, and Mark Hollis, athletic director at Michigan State, as members.

Richey is being assisted by Russ Russell, chief advancement officer at PAL, and Jay Alexander, a former baseball coach at Eastern Michigan who is PAL's manager of strategic partnerships.

The group has been working in tandem with other allies, among them Mark Petrosky, CEO of Duffey Petrosky, and Jim Curran, a partner at the lobbying firm of Karoub Associates in Lansing.

The collection of minds and capital has merged with an exceptional Detroit historic site to create a lasting shrine, said Linn, who grew up on Detroit's east side and attended Cass Tech before his days at the University of Michigan.

"Everyone has memories of Tiger Stadium, from Nelson Mandela (appearance in 1990), to musical groups," Linn said.

"So, I think preserving that site would be pretty unique in the country when so many old ballpark sites have vanished. ...

"So, we have a chance to make great history."