Wojo: Pistons’ move more evidence of a city rebounding

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It would’ve been easy, maybe even fiscally prudent, to ignore the allure. Tom Gores could’ve kept the Pistons right where they are, in a nice arena in a comfortable setting, far from the mounting noise.

But Gores saw what others saw, and then heard what he had to hear. Growth begets growth, successful businessmen attract successful businessmen. And on a clear day in downtown Detroit, you could see more evidence of a rebound city increasingly united, in historic ways and symbolic ways.

The Pistons are moving back downtown, which always made sense from a logistical standpoint, fitting the model of cities with vibrant sports and entertainment districts. But this is deeper and more emotional than simple city planning. This was a celebration of collaboration, as two billionaires — Gores and Christopher Ilitch — one mayor and one NBA commissioner sat on a dais Tuesday at Cass Tech High School and said they all saw the same thing.

Outside the window on the sixth floor at Cass Tech, you could see it too — Ford Field, Comerica Park and the rapidly rising Little Caesars Arena, which will house the Red Wings and Pistons starting in 2017. The buildings sit within a four-block radius, and all four Detroit pro teams will be clustered downtown for the first time in 43 years, pending final approval of the finances.

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No other city in America has such a tight configuration, and how amazing is this? After myriad collapses that sent people and businesses fleeing, Detroit is the place the powerful people want to be, bringing in teams and dreams, restaurants and corporate headquarters.

‘Right call’

“This is the right call for our fans, for our players, for how we can impact the community,” Gores said. “It was time for us to do it.”

It’s something Gores and his Platinum Equity ownership group have mulled since he purchased the team in 2011. He talked then about being “impactful,” and each year, he’s delivered more and more on the promise.

This took a while because it took some convincing, and business-minded Gores had to wrestle with civic-minded Gores. There’s also a somber downside, that The Palace probably will be demolished and the site will fetch a handsome price for a corporate park of some sort.

Auburn Hills did nothing wrong, other than be situated in distant northern Oakland County without many surrounding bars and restaurants. Make no mistake, The Palace has weathered its 28 years very well and hosted three Pistons championships, and it’ll be a shame if it has to go.

But Gores, like the Ilitches and Dan Gilbert, has an emotional connection to Detroit (and also to Flint), and craves more than financial windfalls. The deal won’t be official until early next year but preliminary agreements are done. Between $67-$95 million in public funds will be used to modify Little Caesars Arena to accommodate a second team and help finance a Pistons practice facility. Mayor Mike Duggan emphasized $34.5 million would come from the Downtown Development Authority, money appropriated specifically for downtown development such as this.

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“I can’t believe we’re here,” Duggan said. “Every longtime Detroiter knows what I mean. Thank you to Tom Gores for making this a very happy Thanksgiving for the city of Detroit.”

Obviously, the city has presented enormous opportunity for business and civic growth since its financial calamity. More important, the days of division and imaginary boundaries are being trumped by people with broader visions. Gores had complete control of The Palace and all its revenue, and still left for a unique partnership with an Ilitch family that long has done things on its own.

But when Christopher Ilitch took over most public dealings as his aging parents, Mike and Marian, receded from the spotlight, overtures were accepted from businesses that used to fight over every customer. The chance to host games in a new arena twice as many times during a season was another boost that couldn’t be turned down.

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“Tom Gores is a visionary, and his decision is a watershed moment,” Ilitch said. “This is a bold move, and it will strengthen us in ways we know already, but in some remarkable ways we cannot yet even see.”

Part of the plan

Gilbert, who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers and a huge chunk of Detroit, is the other member of the Big Three, but as recently as a year ago, it was unclear how much the power-brokers wanted to work together. Then Gores teamed up with Gilbert on a bid — still pending — to put an MLS team in a gaudy new soccer facility, providing another link from downtown to Midtown.

Businessmen are connecting dots and dollars, highlighted by the Ilitches’ huge plan for The District Detroit, a 50-block development wrapped around the new arena. It’s ambitious and audacious enough to attract others, and Gores was interested under one major condition — the Pistons had to feel like a partner, not just a tenant.

After a series of phone calls, Gores and Christopher Ilitch met for the first time at courtside during the Pistons-Cavaliers playoff series last spring. From there, a fanciful notion grew steadily into reality. NBA commissioner Adam Silver attended Tuesday’s news conference and said it was amazing how quickly the deal came together, and added that the new arena enhances the Pistons’ chances of hosting an All-Star game.

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“A very large part of it had to do with meeting Chris and seeing how the partnership with the Ilitch family is bigger than any basketball game, bigger than any arena,” Gores said. “Really, it was the big math, what we could do together. Every place I looked, I said, ‘geez, there’s tremendous potential here to really impact the city.’”

Since then, Gores estimated he and Ilitch have talked 30-40 times, and both determined the connection and intentions were real. Gores hired longtime sports agent Arn Tellem last year for this unspoken reason, to see if the move was viable.

“It’s a good deal for us and for the Ilitches, win-win, and it’s a great deal for Detroit,” Tellem said. “What the Ilitches have done with the entertainment district, you can’t help but feel inspired. Not that we’d ever be able to match what the Ilitches and Gilbert have done here, but we saw an opportunity and a civic responsibility to be part of it.”

This is more than just a team returning to the place it left three decades ago. Basketball is a city game and the Pistons were the last of 30 NBA teams in a suburban setting, so the move always made sense.

It didn’t happen until it made financial and civic sense, until visions were shared as readily as an arena could be shared. This was about the Pistons coming home, sure. More than that, it was about collaboration and cooperation, old concepts growing in fresh new places.