Detroit City FC heads effort to restore historic jewel
— She was only 9 at the time, so this wasn’t about the New Deal. This was simply a big deal, and that’s why Lucy Tanalski was among the cheering throngs lining Jos. Campau Street, a couple of blocks from her home in Hamtramck, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt drove through town on Oct. 15, 1936.
Roosevelt, a few weeks shy of his landslide re-election, was on his way to a ribbon-cutting ceremony to dedicate the new Keyworth Stadium. It was one of the first Work Projects Administration projects in Michigan, a promise in the midst of the Great Depression of better days ahead, and FDR was here to trumpet its arrival, telling the crowd that night “this stadium is one of the things that will last for many years.”
Many years later, Tanalski, now Lucy Evans, 88, of Grosse Pointe, chuckles when asked about it: “I was a young kid, but I still remember, you know? That leaves something with you.”
But what are we left with if we can’t, or won’t, preserve our history?
That’s the question that is bringing Evans back to those days now, back to the bustling Hamtramck of her childhood, and to memories of cheering for her high school sweetheart, Jim Evans — they’ve been married for 65 years — as he played football in that stadium for Hamtramck High School. And that’s what is leading their grandson, Paul Thomas, back to Keyworth, too, joining hundreds of others in a landmark community-investment campaign to renovate the old stadium.
It’s an effort spearheaded by a local soccer team, Detroit City Football Club, that outgrew its original rented home at Cass Technical High School and now is trying to raise $750,000 to make structural repairs and improvements at the stadium on Roosevelt, where the bleachers on one side have been condemned and the 15-year-old turf — still used by the high school and local youth teams — is in tatters.
“I think any building that we can save will kind of connect us to our history, our heritage and our past in a good way,” said Thomas, 28, an avid Detroit City FC supporter from Dearborn, where he works at Oakwood Hospital. “And the symbolism of having one of the first WPA projects in Michigan, and being connected to that legacy of putting people back to work in a meaningful way, and kind of revitalizing those projects at this point in our history, I think it’s an amazing thing.”
Detroit City FC, a club founded in 2012 by a handful of young professionals in the city, is tapping into its rapidly growing fan base to make it happen after signing a 10-year lease deal with the Hamtramck school district, which owns the stadium. The “Make History, Save History” campaign officially kicked off last month, and the DCFC owners are utilizing the state’s MILE (Michigan Invests Locally Exemption) Act, a crowdfunding law passed in 2013 that allows companies to accept loans from small investors (amounts from $250 to $10,000) provided they are Michigan residents.
In one month, they’ve already raised nearly $250,000 from more than 125 investors, putting their goal well within reach. The ownership group won’t gain access to that money until they’ve passed the $400,000 mark, but the club, which has seen its annual revenue triple in four seasons, from $170,000 to an estimated $520,000 in 2015, will use its own reserves to begin construction soon.
The plan is for Phase 1 of the project, including structural improvements to the grandstands, renovated locker rooms and restrooms, modernized lighting and turf repairs, to be completed by May 1, in time for Detroit City’s 2016 season.
“We knew we had passionate supporters,” said Sean Mann, the club’s founder and CEO who also works as a lobbyist for Michigan Legislative Consultants. “But you have people who love our club and want to help see it succeed, you have people who grew up in Hamtramck, and then you have people who love history. And I think that’s what’s exciting and unique about this project.”
And no one, perhaps, is more excited than Tom Niczay, Hamtramck Public Schools superintendent. He grew up in Hamtramck, played football at Keyworth for Immaculate Conception Ukrainian High School and, at age 62, has spent more than half his life working in the district — first as a teacher, and later as an administrator — trying to make ends meet.
Niczay says he’s “fiercely proud” of his staff for battling through years of pay cuts, budget deficits and declining enrollment. But even with a new “sinking fund” to help with long-overdue building repairs — that millage passed by a mere 22 votes in May 2014 — this is still a district that owns the second-highest poverty rate in the state.
“So the things that DCFC is doing, I just can’t tell you how thrilled and appreciative of them we are,” Niczay said. “We wouldn’t be able to do it without them. I mean, where else are you gonna get $1 million to fix this place?”
And where else but Keyworth makes sense for this semi-pro soccer club? It was FDR who chided his critics that night in Hamtramck, telling the crowd, “My friends, if this stadium can be called boondoggling, then I am for boondoggling, and so are you.” And so is Mann, a former community organizer, who five years ago, in an attempt to bring together various Detroit neighborhoods, started a coed recreational soccer league.
From that, came this: Detroit City FC, which plays in a fourth-division league sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation and has drawn widespread acclaim — even internationally — as its fan base has grown exponentially, led by the raucous, rebellious Northern Guard Supporters. And after averaging more than 3,500 fans a game this past spring — Cass Tech’s official capacity is 2,500 — “we knew it was time take the next step,” said Alex Wright, another of the club’s owners, who said season-ticket sales, which began Friday, already are outpacing last year by a huge margin.
And while the team continues to mull its long-range plans — finding a majority investor for a move to the pro ranks and eventually building a soccer-specific stadium in Detroit — the club is happy to make a new home in Hamtramck. A cozy one at that, with Keyworth — named for former school superintendent Maurice R. Keyworth — sitting behind rows of century-old, two-story bungalows in this densely populated, dramatically diverse city.
“I was always attracted by the idea of breathing new life into an old venue like that,” Mann said. “You would never build that stadium today, with houses literally butting up to the stadium. … You just don’t have anything like that here.”
They will next May, though, which is why Mann and his fellow owners are busy with far more than fundraising and ticket sales and meeting with the project manager, Detroit-based Integrity Building Group, whose past work includes the renovated Grand Army of the Republic Building downtown. They’re also scheduling happy hours around Hamtramck the next few months — the first was Monday — to answer questions about their plans. Mann also went to lunch with leaders in the Yemeni-American community that surrounds the stadium, explaining, “We just want to reach out to them and make sure the team is accessible.”
But Greg Kowalski, Hamtramck’s resident historian who has written several books about the city, said not to worry: “It’s perfect. It’s an ideal fit for them. They’re going to find community support, and it’s a lively community.”
Yet after he’s done talking about just how lively it is — the bar scene, the few dozen restaurants, and so on — Kowalski starts talking about his hometown’s survival instincts. (“We’re so resilient,” he says, “it’s incredible.”)
And as he rattles off some of the history of Keyworth Stadium — President John F. Kennedy also spoke there just before his 1960 election — he makes one more point. It’s the same one Paul Thomas makes as he talks about his grandfather’s varsity letters he has framed at home, or the stories he’s heard about the catch Jim Evans made to beat Catholic Central — “That was the big, big game,” Evans say — at Keyworth a lifetime ago.
“We’re not just looking at the past here,” said Kowalski, who was born at St. Francis Hospital — now city hall — and grew up a few blocks from the stadium. “We’re actually bringing it back into the present. Making it come alive again. And that’s important.”
‘Make History, Save History’
You can find more information about Detroit City FC’s investment plan at michiganfunders.com.
(Note: This investment offering is available only to Michigan residents. Registration required to prove residency.)
Detroit City FC owners will be hosting a series of happy hours to meet supporters and answer questions about the community investment campaign. Here’s the schedule (all dates 5-7 p.m.):
■Dec. 16: Kelly’s Bar (2403 Holbrook)
■Jan. 8: Bumbo’s (3001 Holbrook)
■Jan. 20: Whiskey in the Jar (2741 Yemans)
■Feb. 3: New Dodge Lounge (8850 Joseph Campau)