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The Ilitch Touch: Transforming Detroit’s Downtown

By Tom Walsh

Christopher Ilitch, in a Bloomberg Television interview a month before his father died, succinctly captured his family’s role in Detroit’s riches-to-rags-to-revival story.

Detroit “ran into several decades of hard times,” Ilitch said, “and we felt an obligation to do everything we could to bring our city back.”

Chris Ilitch at GrounbreakingIn the late 1980s, Mike and Marian Ilitch, who co-founded the Little Caesars pizza chain, bought and renovated the Fox Theatre in Detroit and moved the pizza company headquarters downtown from the suburbs – at a time other businesses were
fleeing the city.

When the Tigers played the 2006 World Series in the ballpark he built across the street from the Fox, Mike Ilitch told a reporter, more in candor than in jest, “We were probably about 15 years too early” as pioneers investing in Detroit’s rebirth. Eventually others followed: Peter Karmanos brought Compuware downtown, and in 2010 Dan Gilbert and Quicken Loans jumped in with a bang, buying and renovating buildings and filling them with thousands
of employees.

Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., has doubled down on his family’s commitment, leading a massive investment in the Little Caesars Arena and The District Detroit –while partnering with Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores with Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores to bring NBA basketball back to the city. It’s a fitting legacy for his late father, who he extolled as “a kind-hearted family man, big-idea businessman, hands-on leader and devoted philanthropist who created opportunity and pride for everyone around him.” Ilitch recently discussed The District Detroit’s progress and the impact on jobs and the city’s neighborhoods during an interview with the Detroiter.

When your mom and dad brought Little Caesars’ headquarters downtown and took on the Fox Theatre renovation, was there a long-term vision that looked anything like The District Detroit?

My parents always loved Detroit – it’s their hometown – and they wanted Detroit to be a vibrant city. They were very excited to take on the Fox Theatre restoration and to move the Little Caesars headquarters downtown. They took so many steps to help re-energize the city: encouraging and supporting the Lions’ move back to Detroit, building Comerica Park and supporting dozens of local charities. The District Detroit, with its amazing collection of sports and entertainment assets, and also residential, retail and office spaces, is a natural extension of their lifelong commitment to Detroit. Some of those early decisions were certainly led by the heart, but the outcome of their early investments, and those of many others is that today Detroit is a great place to do business with a strong outlook for the future.

What is the impact of The District Detroit on investment and jobs?

We’ve already announced investment plans of more than $1.2 billion. We’re working really hard to develop the finest work, live and play district in the country, if not the world. Our investment also includes $175 million for two recently announced projects: the Little Caesars world headquarters campus expansion for our growing pizza business and the new mixed-used building that includes parking, which is currently under construction on Henry Street at Park Avenue. These projects are expected to generate more than 12,500 construction-related jobs, more than 1,100 permanent jobs and more than $2.1 billion in economic impact for our community.

Talk about Tom Gores and his decision to bring the Pistons back to the city core and to pursue a pro soccer franchise. What’s the impact of that move for the region?

Tom Gores’ decision to bring the Pistons to Detroit was a watershed moment for the city. It will contribute tremendously to the positive momentum already underway here and make our city stronger. Detroit is fortunate to have a home-grown entrepreneur like Tom investing so heavily in the city. He is a great businessman who is also committed to doing things the right way. We both share a commitment to making a positive difference in our community, and that’s really what brought our organizations together.

The opening of Little Caesars Arena is less than 200 days away. How will them arena be different than comparable arenas – not only in design and features, but how it interfaces with the surrounding community?

There are a number of innovations that will make an exhilarating experience for fans who attend concerts, sporting events and shows at Little Caesars Arena. We’ve got an incredible outdoor space called the Piazza, a one-of-a-kind indoor experience that’s almost like a downtown street in the Via, and gondola seating that is suspended over the event level for some of the most remarkable views in the world. Other innovations include the Player’s Club tunnel, where fans can see the team enter and leave the ice, and a unique jewel skin around the bowl where we can project video.

At the same time, we put extensive effort into making sure we’re good neighbors to the community surrounding the arena. That includes a number of elements such as building the arena nearly 40 feet below grade so that it blends in with the existing structures. The external facade looks more
like a series of cool buildings than one long wall. We’re also working on a public art program with the College for Creative Studies, landscaping and programming for other public spaces, and more.

How are you addressing the workforce challenges and opportunities triggered by Detroit’s resurgence and the host of new construction projects?

The construction boom throughout the city represents an incredible opportunity for careers in the skilled trades. More than $345 million in contracts awarded for Little Caesars Arena alone have gone to Detroit based or headquartered companies, totaling more than 60 percent of contracts awarded.
And we’ve held dozens of outreach events to attract employees and contractors to our projects, resulting in hundreds of thousands
of hours worked by Detroiters. At the Little Caesars Arena construction site there are more than 1,100 people working every day, and the site has had more than 150 skilled trades apprentices.

Detroit has added about 16,000 new workers downtown since 2013. How many more do we need living and working in the city core to attract the basic amenities that other thriving cities have?

That is a great question. We anticipate the number of people who want to live, work and play in Detroit will only increase. To that end, our plans include the type of “consumer retail” that you are talking about. We are actively discussing where we might want to help develop grocery stores, dry cleaners, gas stations and the like in The District Detroit in the coming years.

How will the Mike Ilitch School of Business at Wayne State support growth and jobs in the city?

The Mike Ilitch School of Business will have a lasting impact on Wayne State University, its faculty, staff and students, and this entire community. Wayne State is already one of our city’s largest and most stable employers, and its campus injects youth, energy and culture into our downtown. And now, even more than in the past, we’re seeing these bright minds want to stay right here in Detroit, joining our workforce and becoming leaders in the making, thanks to the city’s amazing momentum. It has always been my parents’ dream to see the vibrant Detroit of their youth return for future generations —the new business school will be an important part of that.

Tom Walsh is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for length.

Read more from this issue below:

Detroit: A City on the Rise

Under Construction: Michigan’s Build-To-Suit Market

Dan Gilbert Taking Detroit to Overdrive