Soccer stadium's approval, funding unclear

Christine Ferretti, and Charles E. Ramirez

A pair of Detroit business giants want to build a Major League Soccer stadium at the gateway of the city’s downtown, but exactly how the nearly $1 billion field of dreams will become reality remains unknown.

Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, who has teamed with Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, on Wednesday unveiled what he called a “better alternative” for the “front door” of Detroit’s downtown at the site of a failed Wayne County jail project at Gratiot near Interstate 375.

“We feel we can move this fast as needs to be moved,” Gilbert said. “We are at a fork in the road. This is a major decision for downtown.”

The vision calls for a 25,000-seat stadium as the centerpiece of a project that would feature retail and residential units, a hotel and covered parking and plazas. But the project’s cost breakdown, timetable and chance of approval from Wayne County officials are unclear.

Gilbert introduced the plan during a news conference that included MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who noted the jail site as being a “a very key part” of the Detroit plan. The announcement comes a day after the Gores-owned Platinum Equity and Gilbert-owned Rock Ventures issued a joint press release touting their intentions to add a Detroit franchise to the 20-team pro league.

Rock Ventures owner Dan Gilbert flanked by Major League Soccer’s Commissioner Don Garber, left, and Rock Ventures representative Matt Cullen presents his vision for a soccer stadium at the stalled Wayne County Jail site on Wednesday.

The league hasn’t made a formal commitment yet to Detroit but said the city is one of seven being considered as the league continues with its expansion.

“The home that we are really excited about is the jail site,” Garber told reporters. “We’re intrigued by what the possibilities can be with that.”

Gilbert has been trying to buy the 15.5-acre jail site from Wayne County since 2013. Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said Wednesday he’s far from signing a deal to sell the property.

“My position now is consistent with what it has always been,” said Evans, who in recent weeks has said a solution for the jail project is close and the county would finish construction on the existing site. Finishing the jail at its current site, he said, continues to be the least expensive option.

“The new proposal can’t cost Wayne County taxpayers any more than the completion of this project, and we can’t slow the train down,” Evans told The Detroit News. “It’s already been sitting there for three years.”

Construction on the $220 million project began in 2011, under then-County Executive Bob Ficano. The 2,000-bed project near the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice was later halted in June 2013 after $100 million in overruns and charges of corruption.

County officials estimate it costs about $1.3 million a month to have the half-finished jail sitting unused in Greektown. The proposed development site is bounded by Gratiot, Chrysler Service Drive, Macomb and Beaubien.

Three years ago, Gilbert offered the county $50 million for the unfinished jail, the current jail and the adjacent juvenile detention center. County officials have said that the Gilbert offer wasn’t enough money to cover the taxpayer’s losses.

The proposal unveiled Wednesday suggests the county should relocate the current jail, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice and the county’s juvenile detention facility to a former state prison on Mound.

Many rooting for soccer in Detroit

The soccer proposal was one of two major announcements from Gilbert on Wednesday. He also finally reached an agreement with the city of Detroit to build a modernistic high-rise retail and apartment complex on one of downtown’s landmark empty spaces, the former J.L. Hudson’s site on Woodward.

The project could start construction by April 1 and be substantially finished by April 1, 2020, according to Gilbert’s agreement with the city’s Downtown Development Authority.

Costs yet to be determined

Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, said Wednesday that officials met with Evans, Mayor Mike Duggan and representatives for Gov. Rick Snyder about the soccer plan.

When asked what the cost would be to county taxpayers, Cullen said they haven’t worked out the financial projections yet. But a broader analysis is also being done on the total project cost and alternatives for the county’s criminal justice complex. He couldn’t say when the analysis would be completed.

There are “certainly no commitments,” Cullen said, but added that Evans will be a partner in the discussions.

Duggan also addressed the soccer proposal Wednesday, saying Evans would have to “make a financial decision.”

“He has a responsibility to complete a jail, and he’ll do it in the appropriate financial means,” Duggan said.

But the mayor did endorse the idea of MLS soccer downtown.

“I am going to work day and night to bring Major League Soccer to downtown Detroit, and one way or another, we are going to get it here,” he said.

Wayne County Commissioner Raymond Basham, D-Taylor, noted most major cities have jails downtown right next to their courthouses.

“You can’t forget the county’s investment to finish the jail,” he said. “The county’s taxpayers have already spent a significant amount to finish the project.”

Basham also noted while the soccer stadium’s backers may have approached county and city officials about the project, they haven’t approached the county’s 15 commissioners, who ultimately have the final vote on such a development.

“But forget our issues,” he said. “When Tigers and Lions fans come to games, they want to enjoy themselves. Throw another major league sports team in the area and what kind of traffic congestion are you going to have? That doesn’t make a lot of sense, either.”

The MLS regular season typically runs March through October.

When asked about other potential sites for the downtown stadium, Cullen stressed the “profound belief” for a different development at the gateway of the city and interest in MLS are behind the plan.

“It was that convergence that suddenly caused Dan and the team to say, ‘we’re in on trying to put this together,’ ” he said.

Stadium a piece of puzzle

Garber said the meeting with city, state and county officials here is among nearly a couple dozen the league has had as it works to expand its team base.

“We are not going to make a commitment to come here unless we know we have an ownership group in place. We feel we have that part settled,” he said. “We certainly are not going to come to a market unless we know there’s a great, vibrant, passionate growing fan base. We feel comfortable about that. And, the third piece of the puzzle, which is an important one, is the stadium.”

Garber said the league is focused on Detroit and it’s been able to get things done when it’s what the public and private sectors and fans wanted.

“Be assured, we’re all going to be working hard to see if we can figure it out,” he said.

Evans said he’s not ruling out the possibility of a soccer stadium on the site of the unfinished jail but wants his concerns to be addressed. He made his position known to the soccer stadium’s backers, he said.

“I can’t afford for Wayne County taxpayers to pay any more than what’s already on the table,” he said. “There’s clearly going to be a discrepancy. It’s going to cost more with this project than it will to finish the existing site. If someone comes up with the money to cover that gap, and we can do it in the existing time frame, we’ll certainly look at it. I mean who wouldn’t want have Major League Soccer in Detroit.”

If Detroit is chosen for an MLS expansion team, it would result in four major professional sports stadiums — Ford Field, Comerica Park, the new Red Wings arena and an MLS stadium — within a 10-15 minute walk, Gilbert noted.

MLS has doubled, from 10 to 20 teams, since 2004 and hopes to expand to 24 teams by 2020, with a target growth of 28.

The league hasn’t decided when it will complete its expansion, Garber said.

“We haven’t set a timeline, and it’s important that we don’t because we have to get this right,” he said. “We’re going through what will likely be the last round of expansion in our league’s history. And these next four or five teams are really, really important,” Garber said.

Staff writers John Niyo and Louis Aguilar contributed.