Finley: Mike Ilitch cut path to Detroit’s comeback

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

It's easy to forget in this era of fierce Detroit pride that time when the Motor City was the butt of jokes nationally and self-loathing at home; when it's future seemed one long downward slope.

The Detroit on which Mike Ilitch staked his company’s and personal reputations in 1989 was at its historic low-water mark, while the Little Caesars empire he started 30 years earlier in Garden City was gathering toward the nearly $4 billion pizza-sports-entertainment-gaming giant it is today.

The suburbs were the place to be then for a fast growing company, and Little Caesars was comfortable on its Farmington Hills campus.

But Ilitch, who died Friday at 87, was born a dreamer.

He looked at a faded theater in a bottomed out downtown and saw the chance to take a major step toward returning Detroit to its glory days. He took it. And was the first to do so.

Mike Ilitch built empire from humble beginnings

Dan Gilbert and all the other investors who followed Ilitch walked the path he cut through the despair and hopelessness of Detroit in the late 20th century.

But at the time, it was no small selling job to his people.

Private funeral set for Ilitch

This was before Detroit was cool. No stylish lofts. No nightlife. Not much of anything but a city income tax, long commutes and parking hassles.

The marquee of the Fox Theatre pays tribute to Mike Ilitch, who brought the property back to life.


Back then, it seemed something closed in Detroit every day. Ilitch started opening things. The Fox. Comerica Park. Hockeytown.

Ilitch’s passion fueled rebirth of Red Wings, downtown

Slowly moving ahead. Often two steps forward, one step back.

But he kept dreaming.

Of a new hockey arena. Of houses, offices, parks and stores to replace the dilapidated neighborhoods around his new headquarters. Of reversing 50 years of neglect and abuse of the Cass Corridor.

He bought up long abandoned buildings and weedy lots, waiting for the time he could connect them in a new and vibrant neighborhood that would help return Woodward Avenue to a contiguous strip of development.

Wojo: Ultra-competitor Ilitch made Detroit a winner

Work started on The District last year. The Red Wings will play their first game in the new arena this fall, as will the prodigal Pistons.

Mike Ilitch didn't live to see his final dream fulfilled.

But he did stick around long enough to have his stubborn faith in downtown Detroit vindicated. The comeback has an air of inevitability now. That would not be so had Ilitch not stepped boldly into the uncertain future three decades ago.

Detroit is no joke now. People from all over the world want to come here. To work. To live. To invest. Mike Ilitch started all that.

Fans balked when the decision was made to name the new sports complex Little Caesars Arena. The Ilitch family paid for it. They can choose the handle.

But I'd suggest it be called the Mike Ilitch Arena.

What he did for Detroit should never be forgotten.