The Palace set standard for future arenas

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It was late 1985 when Tom Wilson went to meet Robert Grusnick, at the time the first mayor of the city of Auburn Hills. He wanted to show him a drawing, one that would change sports and entertainment venues in North America for the next two-plus decades.

Only, at that time, nobody realized it, and the accommodations hardly gave any hint of what was to come.

“We called the mayor of Auburn Hills and said, ‘We got an idea for you,’” Wilson recalled. “He said, ‘Sure. I don’t have an office but why don’t you come to my business.’

“So we arranged to meet him and he owns a party store. We go in the back and on 12 cases of beer we unrolled the blueprints and said, ‘We want to build in your city.’ He said, ‘Hey, that’s great. Call my assistant and we’ll get going.’ ”

The first plans to build The Palace of Auburn Hills were officially underway and the idea Wilson, then the CEO of the Detroit Pistons, and team owner Bill Davidson had more than a year earlier were starting to come to life. By the summer of 1988, the new building on Lapeer, just off of Interstate 75, was open for business. And by the fall of that year it was the home of the Pistons, who would win an NBA championship in that inaugural season and add two more from there.

Niyo: Pistons built a Palace, now they’re moving on

Davidson and his partners — Bob Sosnick and David Hermelin — got to work with Wilson on the new arena. . None had any real experience building one and neither had the architecture firm they brought on — Rossetti.

“That was our all-star team of people who knew very little,” Wilson said with a laugh. “But we did a lot of homework on it.”

Finding the site was next, and Wilson even leaned on his mother-in-law, who worked in real estate, to find the land off Lapeer. The meeting with Grusnick followed and the task of building came next. It was then that the real work began. Figuring how to change the way arenas were built was the challenge.

Wilson and fellow team executive John Ciszewski wondered why the suites, which were always at the top of the building, couldn’t be lower.

“Why punish people who want to pay the most money,” Wilson remembers saying. “Isn’t this upside down?”

They went to Rossetti, which was skeptical building lower suites could work. But a week later, the firm had a plan to build them in a bunker style, placing them under the existing seats.

It created two sets of suites 16 rows from the court and 24 rows from the court. Later, they decided to add more suites to the top of the building.

That move allowed the Pistons to charge more for suites than any team in the league.

“The first year we made over $20 million, which is like $40 or $50 million now,” Wilson said. “It was unheard of. From that point, (NBA commissioner) David Stern said at the owners’ meeting, “We want all of you, sometime this year, to get to Detroit.”

Other buildings that came on line around the same time — Orlando, Miami, Charlotte — have come and gone.

After 29 seasons, the Pistons will play their final game at the still sparkling venue on Monday, opting to move downtown next season and join the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena, the latest addition to the city’s revival.

What they’re leaving behind is a symbol — one that created the standard for which nearly every arena built since has tried to follow.

“There are a lot of great memories,” said Wilson, now the president and CEO at Olympia Entertainment. “It was a magical time, it really was, and we were all fortunate and blessed to be a part of it.”

Largest Palace crowds (one show)

1 WWF Wrestling; Aug. 30, 1993; 23,954

2. Garth Brooks; Dec. 12, 1992; 23,524

3. Neil Diamond; Feb. 10, 1992; 23,000

Neil Diamond; Feb. 11, 1992; 23 000

Neil Diamond; Feb. 12, 1992; 23,000

6. U2; March 27, 1992; 22,976

7. New Kids on the Block; June 26, 1990; 22,738

8. Billy Joel; Feb. 9, 1990; 22,702

9. Elton John; Oct. 16, 1992; 22,665

Elton John; Oct. 17, 1992; 22,665

Highest attended Concert Day

New Kids on the Block (Dec. 2, 1989 – 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. shows), 41,932

Most sellouts at The Palace

1 Bob Seger – 16 sellouts

Neil Diamond – 16 sellouts

3. Elton John – 15 sellouts

4. Billy Joel – 14 sellouts

5. Rod Stewart – nine sellouts

6. Aerosmith – eight sellouts

Alan Jackson – eight sellouts

Eric Clapton – eight sellouts

Tim McGraw – eight sellouts

Top NBA scoring performances

Anthony Davis; 59; Feb. 21, 2016

LeBron James; 48; May 31, 2007

Tracy McGrady; 46; April 23, 2003

Jerry Stackhouse; 46; April 15, 2001

Grant Hill; 46; Feb. 8, 1999

Shaquille O’Neal; 46; Feb. 16, 1993

What's next?

Joe Louis Arena’s days are ticking away. The future of the Palace of Auburn Hills isn’t quite as clear.

While the Detroit Pistons are set to begin playing at Little Caesars Arena next season, there is not yet a publicly known end date for the suburban arena, nestled some 30 miles up I-75 from Detroit.

For the summer concert season, it’s business as usual at the venue, which opened in 1988.

Chance the Rapper (May 18) and the Weeknd (May 24) have shows lined up there next month, and Neil Diamond will play his 20th Palace concert — a venue record for any individual artist — on June 2.

Other acts heading to the Palace this summer include Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull (June 28), New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul and Boyz II Men (June 29), Queen with Adam Lambert (July 20), the multi-stage Vans Warped Tour (July 21), J. Cole (July 23), Roger Waters (Aug. 2), Bruno Mars (Aug. 12) and the dual bill of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (Sept. 8).

Palace officials haven’t offered a public timeline for the building or revealed what’s in the works for the nearly 30-year-old arena.

Adam Graham