FLINT – The spotlight on the Pistons move to Detroit is glaring, but Tom Gores isn’t about to let his hometown get cast in the shadows.
Just as the Pistons owner was there to address the immediate needs of Flint during its water crisis to nourish the bodies of the community he called home, so is he there again to nourish their minds.
“I know how much this means to Tom, having grown up here with his siblings,” Arn Tellem said after announcing the latest of Gores’ commitments to Flint, a $1 million pledge – matched by a $1 million grant from the Consumers Energy Foundation – to launch the Flint Promise, a program to create a tuition-free path to college for Flint high school graduates.
“Tom’s view was that they wanted to help initially with the crisis – the water problem – but also deal with the long-term goals of improving the life and the rebirth of this community. An essential part of that is providing young people here a chance at a better life and that means getting a better education. He knows how much that means to someone’s future and he’s had this idea, to support a promise. That’s what he wanted me to echo here – that if you graduate high school, Tom has your back.”
Gores’ giving to Flint began with his FlintNOW campaign, a $10 million pledge to support a variety of programs as the community’s needs were brought to light by its water crisis.
“I am grateful to the Consumers Energy Foundation for joining us in this effort to provide every kid in Flint with the promise of a chance to go to college,” Gores said. “I grew up in Flint, went to school here and appreciate the power of education to transform people’s lives and revitalize a community. Every student who works hard deserves a chance to earn a college degree. We want to give those kids and their families a reason to dream and provide them the resources to make those dreams come true.”
Both the Gores and Consumers Energy checks were handed to Isaiah Oliver, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, who as a product of Flint’s schools knows well the potential impact of the Flint Promise.
“The goal is to bookend this,” he said. “We have a lot of immediate needs and we have not moved, as a community, from crisis to recovery. But the reality is we have to start looking long term. It’s a commitment to these students. How do we make sure we boost the economy, how do we provide educational opportunities, post-secondary opportunities for students and families and change their life? We’re not only changing a cohort of students’ lives, this should be a generational change, a culture of change.”
That was exactly what motivated Gores to buy the Pistons in 2011 and the carrot he used to lure Tellem away as vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment from his wildly successful career as a prominent sports agent representing a spectrum of NBA and baseball stars.
“I’ve been here two years now and the Pistons are an incredible platform to be involved in the community,” Tellem said. “Really, that was Tom’s vision when he bought the team and then later when he hired me to help execute that plan of his. It’s been a privilege for me to be here the last two years to support Tom and work on his behalf and I think today is emblematic of that. Tom, at the essence, believes that, yes, we’re here to win games and entertain our fans, but our mission is larger. We’re really here to improve the lives of others and this embodies that in the Flint community.”
There are many fine points still to be ironed out to finalize the Flint Promise, Oliver said, with the third of four meetings at which numbers will be crunched set for Monday. But there was an urgency to launch the program now so that its impact could reach the 2018 graduates about to embark on their final year of high school.
As president of Mott Community College and a Flint resident, Beverly Walker-Griffea has a profound stake in the successful implementation of the Flint promise. And she appreciates the impact that the association with the Pistons can have on a city which has had basketball coursing through its veins for decades. Some of Michigan’s greatest high school basketball teams claim Flint as home with Glen Rice and Jeff Grayer reaching the NBA from the Northwestern powerhouses of the 1980s.
Having the double appeal of the support of Michigan’s NBA franchise plus an owner with such deep roots in the Flint community to serve as a call to other corporations, foundations and philanthropists makes the Flint Promise an especially powerful tool, she feels.
“I have had the opportunity to have other types of athletic associations or athletes do things for Mott students and the community just rallies,” she said. “They are so pleased and happy when their own come back to help. I live here in Flint so I am just very excited of what the possibilities are as we step forward and say more can come forward. We can raise more money so that every student will have that opportunity of a lifetime.”
Gores has an idea who might be in line to join the Flint Promise team. When Lansing native Magic Johnson was rallying support for a similar initiative in his hometown, he enlisted Gores’ help – with the Pistons owner serving notice that he would be calling to return the favor on Flint’s behalf someday.
“So Magic, wherever you are,” Tellem smiled, “your phone will be ringing.”
When Gores announced the Pistons move to Detroit last November, he made clear that a primary motivation was to further the momentum of the city’s revitalization and continue to use the platform of Pistons ownership toward that end. But he’s equally committed to putting the power of that platform to use in a variety of communities where Pistons fans live and work.
“Obviously, we care very much about Detroit and Detroit’s rebirth,” Tellem said. “But we also care about the surrounding communities and really – especially because Tom grew up here and has deep ties to Flint – this is very much a part of his heart and soul. He really wants to do something for this community to give Flint a chance at a better future.”