DETROIT – At the end of the first meeting between Tom Gores and Mike Ilitch – the one that ultimately elevated Tuesday’s Little Caesars Arena ribbon-cutting ceremony beyond a building’s mere unveiling to a transcendent event in the grand old city’s rich history – the symbolic figure of the city’s rebirth had a question for his young, would-be business partner.
“Do you believe in doing everything the right way all the time?”
He likely already knew the answer.
As Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan observed in an “I still can’t believe it” sort of cadence as he spoke before Gores, Duggan, Gov. Rick Snyder and Red Wings and Ilitch Holdings chief Chris Ilitch snipped the blue ribbon on the new arena’s western edge, there was little financial motivation, on the face of it, for the Pistons owner to abandon the building he owned – The Palace of Auburn Hills – and all its attendant revenue streams to move downtown and share Little Caesars Arena.
Especially since he’d pumped more than $40 million of his money since buying the Pistons in 2011 into keeping The Palace among the jewels of NBA arenas, confirmation that Gores did things the right way, all the time.
Then again, Duggan and both generations of Ilitches probably also knew that Gores didn’t build his business empire, Platinum Equity, into an industry leader by making rash, unfounded decisions. As Duggan also noted, the move to Detroit figures to increase the value of the Pistons franchise in an age of skyrocketing franchise valuations.
But this wasn’t a balance-sheet decision for Gores as much as a philosophical one. It was the philosophy he espoused publicly in his introductory remarks upon buying the Pistons six years ago – the philosophy he neatly summarized in his remarks to the gathered crowd on a sun-splashed day in the revitalized heart of Detroit.
“We can do the most for the community,” he said, looking south to his new neighbors, the Tigers at Comerica Park and the Lions at Ford Field just down Woodward Avenue, “from right here, in Detroit.”
There were links to the Pistons’ Detroit history nodding at his words. Among them: Dave Bing, whose remarkable life’s journey included wearing Pistons colors at Cobo Arena before launching his own steel company and eventually sitting in the seat Duggan now occupies at city hall. Ray Scott, who played for and coached the Pistons, sat beaming with a few sons of the city who would later wear their hometown colors, Earl Cureton and John Long and Greg Kelser.
Little Caesars Arena looked dazzling, outside and in, ready to throw open its doors and start hosting musicians, entertainers and athletes next week. The spinoff businesses it will spawn – The District Detroit, a sprawling development grander in scale than anything surrounding a downtown sports arena anywhere in the country – one day soon will give Detroit a fortified backbone from downtown to mid-town that holds every potential to spark further development and spill into the city’s neighborhoods.
“This is a huge win,” Gores said. “Our work isn’t done, but I’m excited.”
A new home for the Red Wings was going to give Detroit a shot in the arm one way or the other, but a new home that keeps Little Caesars Arena – and, more critically the bars, restaurants, hotels and shops due to sprout like mushrooms in its shadows busy with over 225 events a year figures to be transformative.
That’s what the move of the Pistons, enabled by their owner’s passion for being a change agent for the city they once and again call home, means for the success of The District Detroit and, ultimately, for the health of the city.
Mike Ilitch wasn’t there to do his part to cut that big blue ribbon. But Mr. I should know: His partner with the Pistons did right by his vision for Detroit.