Detroit — In retrospect — and retrospect always is "your best friend in these situations," Tom Wilson says — maybe this really is the way it was supposed to happen.
Five years ago, he left a Palace he'd helped build to dig a hole in the ground. And now that the dirt is finally flying — at a rate of 250 semi-trailers a day — Wilson is sitting in an empty arena full of history talking about the imagined one full of promise that has made it obsolete.
He's talking about new ideas and old blueprints, and the more you listen the more you understand why the former president and CEO of Palace Sports & Entertainment has again become a billionaire's best hidden asset.
Wilson was hired to fill a similar role with Ilitch Holdings' Olympia Entertainment in March 2010, a move that came barely a year after longtime Pistons owner Bill Davidson died, and a couple of months after Davidson's widow, Karen, went public with her plans to sell the team.
So rather than being handed the keys to the franchise — that notion faded quickly — Wilson turned his keys in and headed downtown to join Mike Ilitch's business empire. He was followed by a group of 20 or so Palace employees eventually, an exodus that sparked a lawsuit over allegedly stolen trade secrets.
Upon Wilson's arrival, Chris Ilitch, CEO of Ilitch Holdings, hailed him as "a visionary in the industry." Yet it was Ilitch's own vision that helped sell him on the move.
Sure, he'd already enjoyed a successful career, "but how would it feel," Ilitch asked him, "if in your hometown you could someday take your (grandson) and walk him down Woodward Avenue and say I had something to do with the rebirth of this city?"
That resonated with Wilson, who grew up near Six Mile and Woodward, went to high school at Cass Tech and worked his way through school at Wayne State as a messenger for General Motors, among other odd jobs. He left for Los Angeles after college, cut his teeth in the sports industry with the Lakers, then returned home as the Pistons sales director in the late 1970s — not long before the Red Wings opened Joe Louis Arena.
A decade later, the Pistons moved into The Palace, a state-of-the-facility that's still used as a blueprint in the arena business. And one that Wilson and his executive team — senior VP of sales John Ciszewski has been with him from the start — largely were responsible for building, along with an entertainment conglomerate that grew to include DTE Energy Music Theatre and Meadow Brook Music Festival.
It was more than an arena the Ilitches wanted to build, though. It was a sprawling, 45-block entertainment district — dubbed "The District Detroit" — that will include a mix of commercial and residential development, grouped together in five distinct neighborhoods. The Ilitches "bold vision" also would rely on nearly $285 million in public funding, which meant a good deal of political wrangling was in store, something Wilson hadn't had to deal with much in his previous endeavors.
So, yes, he admits, "It was daunting. … Even when I came down, you could see the challenge ahead."
The skepticism, and criticism, too. Publicly funded stadiums and arenas rarely, if ever, spur the kind of economic development owners and civic leaders promise. Comerica Park across the street is merely one example locally. And for years, the Ilitches allowed many of their properties to sit vacant.
"I can understand why people say, 'Well, gee, I thought it was gonna happen before,' " Wilson said. "But there's so much work that's going into it now. … I think they can be confident that this is not just gonna be an arena."
How quickly that happens, he can't say for sure. The arena project is on schedule, with excavation crews working 12-hour days, six days a week. But a year ago, when the Ilitches unveiled their grand idea, they talked of accelerating the timeline so that much of the surrounding retail and residential development would be open when the arena debuts in late summer 2017.
"That's still the plan and the hope," Wilson said, though he's quick to add, "First things first, we've got to get this arena open and open on time."
What he will say, though, is what so many others who are doubling down on downtown — young entrepreneurs taking bigger risks on virtually every corner — are saying.
"Detroit's had the dirt kicked in its face for so long, and people giving us up for dead, so it's such an exciting story now, to see this comeback," Wilson said. "Five years ago, when we came down, it still felt eerily quiet. You'd leave the Fox and go down Woodward to go to a game at 5 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon and you wouldn't pass five people. Those days, mercifully, are completely gone."
It's a different relationship now for the 65-year-old Wilson, and not just because he's dealing mostly with Ilitch's son, Chris, on the family's day-to-day business. ("He's calling a lot of the shots here," Wilson says, "and doing a great job of it.")
With Davidson, there was almost a father-son relationship after Wilson spent more than 30 years working for him, the last 17 as Palace president. But there was also a hands-off approach.
"His involvement in The Palace was basically financing it, helping name it, and that was basically it," Wilson said. "The rest he just said, 'Here, you do it. I don't know anything about arenas.' "
'Make it different'
The Ilitches, meanwhile, are "intimately involved," and why wouldn't they be? "Because they've lived this," Wilson said. "I mean, Mrs. Ilitch was in an office down here selling tickets to suppliers years ago. … So they have very strong opinions on what they want."
And it's Chris Ilitch who is constantly pushing the team to "make it different, make it innovative," Wilson says. "He'll have his fingerprints all over this in a really positive way."
Wilson's are, too. He had a hand in The Palace design, a "paradigm shift" that featured lower-level suites — Wilson first sketched them on a napkin — and made arenas viable, becoming an industry template.
"So one of the things we did when we sat down here was say, 'OK, what's the next step?' " Wilson said.
That's where the "deconstructed arena" concept emerged, with pieces pulled out — administrative offices, box office, merchandise store, restaurants — to Woodward and points south.
And instead of a towering 14-story building, it'll be half that, with the arena — they're calling it the "Detroit Events Center" for now — sunk in a 40-foot hole to give it a lower profile. And a lower bowl with a whopping 9,000 seats, 50 percent more than Joe Louis Arena, the third-oldest building in the NHL behind Edmonton's Rexall Place — a new arena will open there in 2016 and Madison Square Garden, which just underwent a $1 billion face-lift.
"The disadvantage of being last is that you're always in this old barn that you're playing in that doesn't have any amenities," Wilson said. "The advantage to going last is you can take the best from every other arena and incorporate it into yours, come up with your own ideas, which we've done, and then you can have a consequential change."
That's why they made trips to visit other arenas and stadiums around the country. It's why they solicited input from touring artists like Garth Brooks and employees like Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, Ilitch asking all of them, "How can we make this better for you?"
'Change is tough'
The Ilitches will unveil more of those answers in the coming months, building a "preview center" for season-ticket holders that will include models of "The District" and the arena and displays showing the suites and actual seats. (They haven't gone out for bid yet.)
"It's a little bit of hand holding," Wilson said. "Change is tough."
But for Wilson, coming off what he calls "the best concert year at The Joe in 25 years" — plus a 188-game sellout streak for the Red Wings — it has been "extraordinarily fulfilling." And as he starts talking about preserving some of the memories echoing through Joe Louis Arena, he can't help but think about his own career arc as it comes full circle.
"I think the Ilitches have that same sort of philosophy: 'This is good, but what's next?' " he said. "When you're working with people like that, you can make it a long-term relationship, and that's kind of exciting. Because it's always great to be able to look back and say, 'Boy, that was a great ride.' "