New home for Red Wings, Pistons raises a city's hopes

Chris Ilitch sounded like an excited tour guide.

He was showing off Little Caesars Arena, the new home of the Detroit Red Wings and Pistons and the gem of a 55-block development dubbed The District Detroit. The project has already cost $1.2 billion and has generated an economic impact within the state of more than $1.5 billion.

The Ilitch Holdings president and CEO is intent on delivering on his vision of making the Motor City vibrant enough to retain college graduates the state educates and to make it a go-to place to live, work and play.

"This type of project comes about once in a lifetime," Ilitch says while giving The Associated Press an exclusive look at the arena during a nearly two-hour tour. "If we do this right and do it well, it has an opportunity to materially impact the trajectory of the community for decades."

Nearly six decades ago, Mike and Marian Ilitch founded Little Caesars Pizza in suburban Detroit. The husband-and-wife team made enough dough to own the Red Wings, Tigers, Motor City Casino and Fox Theatre. Mike Ilitch , a billionaire businessman, died more than six months ago. Chris , the sixth of seven siblings and only one involved in day-to-day operations of the family business, has made it his mission to fulfill his parents' dream.

"My father's vision and his lifelong ambition and work, and that of my mother's, was to see a bustling Detroit again," Ilitch said. "The one thing I learned from my parents is to think big. I often think of this project as a culmination of their life's work."

The project has put more than 12,500 people to work and has the potential to make an impact on a city that was once one of the nation's biggest and most powerful thanks to the automobile industry. But the city crumbled to depths so deep the state appointed an emergency manager and filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

"It has created the aura of confidence that Detroit is now going to come back in a major way, and this is what attracts other investors," said Mark Rosentraub, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan. "We audit everything they do and as of July 31, the total economic impact was $1.563 billion within the state. They've already written checks for $926 million for a project that was anticipated to cost $450 million. People around the country ask me, 'What are they building for $1 billion?' And I say, 'Wait until you see it."

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for Tuesday and the public is invited on a tour Sept. 9, three days before Kid Rock's concert is its first ticketed event. The Red Wings left nearby Joe Louis Arena after spring and make their Little Caesars Arena debut Sept. 23 against Boston in a preseason game. The Pistons, who are bolting from The Palace of Auburn Hills, will take the court Oct. 4 against Charlotte in an exhibition game.

The Pistons are coming back downtown after the Ilitch-owned Red Wings briefly pondered buying the NBA team and moving to the suburbs in 2010.

Ultimately, the Ilitch family pulled out of negotiations because staying in the city was a priority and Tom Gores bought the team.

"It's one of the big reasons we passed on purchasing the Pistons," Chris Ilitch told the AP this week from the upper deck of Little Caesars Arena. "Buying the Pistons and The Palace, the thought was we would've had to move the Red Wings out to The Palace and we didn't want to do that."

The Pistons recently announced a Bob Seger concert on Sept. 23 will be the arena's final event . The Pistons' property may be repurposed as a hub for automobile suppliers.

Ilitch has a degree in business administration from the University of Michigan. He has spent the past six years planning The District Detroit to make it a day-to-day destination.

Detroit has been a place where the young and old have been coming for sports and entertainment - watching the Red Wings, Tigers and Lions along with concerts, musicals and plays. Living in the city, though, has been a challenge because demand has exceeded the supply of apartments, condos and homes downtown.

Soon, that will change. Ilitch said six projects will combine to become Detroit's biggest, single residential development in two-plus decades - with 686 units - and there are plans to develop 5,000 residences within The District Detroit, with 20 percent of the allotment designated for affordable housing.

"To have a great sports and entertainment district and build a great neighborhood, you have to have neighbors," he said, standing in a plaza beside the foundation of future apartments next to the arena. "Young people have left our state for decades to live places like Chicago, Denver and LA. And for the first time in 60 years, we've reversed that trend. In the last four years, they've started to stay and they've started to stay in big numbers."

Ilitch points to graphics showing Michigan's unemployment average dipping under the national average; the state's migration of college graduates going from last in the country to No. 17 from 2007 to 2015; and Michigan retaining graduates more successfully than Illinois in 2014 and 2015.

Wearing brown work boots, he walks through dust and puddles during his tour. He was unable to enter some parts of the arena because a stairwell, for example, was undergoing a pressurization test, one of the final steps before the doors open to the public. He exchanges pleasantries with a slew of workers, many he has met while overseeing the day-to-day operations.

"People have asked, 'Are you excited to be done soon?'" Ilitch says. "And I always say, 'We're just getting started.'"