“Seen that side of town/everybody’s always down. Why? Because they can’t get up.”
How much do the Red Wings mean to Detroit? A silly question perhaps, but one residents of the city are being confronted with as the Ilitch family, who own the Original Six franchise as well as the Little Caesars pizza chain and numerous other interests, have unveiled new details for a long-planned development in the Motor City.
And this is more than just a new arena. No, this is an urban makeover on a grandiose scale, with entire neighborhoods planned around it. The renderings of the project certainly look cool, but not everyone is on board with the master plan.
In fact, there is a very vocal opposition that believes no taxpayer money should be used on this project, that the Ilitches stand to benefit more than the city. And that at a time when struggling residents are having their water cut off and the city is going through bankruptcy, perhaps this is not the best use of public funds.
As it stands right now, taxpayers will be responsible for about 58 percent of the construction costs of the elaborate plan, while the Red Wings will play in the yet-to-be-named arena for up to 95 years without paying rent. Also, when those naming rights for the building are sold, the windfall goes to Olympia Development, the Ilitch family company running the project.
Is this a story we’ve heard before? Sure. But not in a city like Detroit.
I’ve lived within five hours of Detroit my entire life. I’m not claiming to be an expert on the city and all the hardships it has fallen on over the decades, but I’ve seen the highs and lows first-hand. I’ve slept on the floor of an anarchist collective on Trumbull Avenue (long story), passing craters where houses once stood while making a midnight run for Chinese food in an otherwise silent neighborhood. I’ve seen angry pimps on cell phones dodging traffic outside a brand-new casino and I’ve seen a packed house at Joe Louis Arena go wild for the Red Wings. I’ve had amazing barbecue on a block some locals had criticized as being gentrified, when nothing but blight existed anywhere else for a 10-minute drive in either direction.
Ford Field, Comerica Park and the Fox Theatre are just a couple fairly recent projects developed downtown in an attempt to revitalize the Motor City, but obviously the healing power of such buildings has been limited. This new vision by Olympia Development includes entirely new neighborhoods where, according to the plans, the company hopes to attract young folks in some locales and add sophistication in others.
Needless to say, the whole project has been a flashpoint for the community itself, not to mention outsiders. Some will say this grand vision is pushing poor people further out of the city; others say no one lives in the area anyway. Some believe the effort will bring people back downtown to live and spend money, while others worry they’ll be robbed and shot as soon as they get off the highway (I’m not kidding; read the reader comments on some of the Detroit Free Press articles I linked to above).
A lot of folks don’t think the Ilitch family needs money from the public to construct a vast array of buildings that the clan will financially benefit from for decades; others are just happy someone is doing something to clear out the vacant lots that act as a psychological and financial barrier to urban renewal.
Simply put, there are no easy answers here. Detroit has been trying to pull itself up for decades now and you can find victories and defeats depending on what you are looking for. The Red Wings may be the current focal point, but they are far from the only one.