Business, team leaders say collaboration key for Detroit

John Niyo
The Detroit News

A few weeks ago, as he stood in Chris Ilitch's office above the Fox Theatre, Tom Wilson marveled at the view out the window.

"I said, 'Look at that! There's five cranes (operating). How long do you think it's been since you saw five cranes — not working on the same project, but anywhere — in downtown Detroit?" Wilson said. "It's just signs of life. There's so much energy."

And it's a welcome sight, to be sure, with the Ilitches' arena project downtown finally kicking up more dust. But it's one that raises a question about collaboration, and a perceived lack thereof between the Ilitches and other prominent business leaders downtown, most notably Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans.

"I can't speak for others," Gilbert said in a recent interview with The News, "but I think we should be doing projects together, working together, especially when it comes to this kind of challenge."

Gilbert keeps buying properties, renovating buildings and recruiting tenants downtown, where he's now the city's largest single employer. Most of his work has come south of the Fox Theatre, but his new $70 million Brush Park redevelopment plan east of Woodward is a short walk from the new arena site.

And yet Gilbert, who also owns the Cavaliers, says he hasn't had much contact with the Ilitches.

"I think we celebrate everything that Dan does, and every victory that Dan has," said Wilson, president and CEO of the Ilitch-owned Olympia Entertainment.

"And hopefully he feels the same about this. … If we can make everybody's life a little bit better by bringing more entertainment and more fun down here, then it's a win for him as well. So everything we do, I think, complements each other."

Still, Wilson acknowledges, "The more you talk, the better off you are."

And that is something Pistons owner Tom Gores is promising to do, hiring noted sports agent Arn Tellem as his vice chairman at The Palace and tasking him with expanding the company's involvement downtown.

That doesn't mean moving the Pistons downtown to the new arena, though "if the Pistons ever chose to play a few games down here, or whatever, I think it would be a great thing for the city and for us and for them," Wilson said.

But it does mean beginning a dialogue, and ideally about something more than just a new broadcasting rights deal. The current Fox Sports Detroit contract for the Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons — negotiated jointly in 2007 — expires after the 2017-18 season.

"As the new guy on the block, it is incumbent upon us to make that happen," Gores told The News last week. "We have spoken to the Ilitches and they have been very nice. They are quality people, and there is more that Dan (Gilbert) and I can do. It is incumbent for us to bring it all together. I do believe we can.

"Sometimes it helps to be the new kid on the block because there is less history. We can't be in the same house working against each other."