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The Tale of Two Billionaires

Feb 13, 2017

You have to admire many things about Mike Ilitch. The son of Macedonian immigrants, in the classic American success story, failed to become a major league baseball player, but instead became a true player on a much bigger stage.

He grew up with essentially nothing.

When he died Friday he was worth more than $5 billion, owned a major league hockey and baseball team, a massive national fast food pizza empire, stadiums, theaters, and lots of other stuff.

Along the way he was a major figure in the rebirth of Detroit’s downtown, beginning perhaps with his renovation of the Fox Theater nearly thirty years ago. A respected journalist I know talked to him back in 1988, when they showed the beautifully restored art deco palace off to the media before its grand reopening.

When my friend congratulated Ilitch on what he had done for Detroit, the pizza magnate told him something along the lines of, “Thanks, but I did this to make money. If Detroit benefits as well, that’s great.”

I never forgot that burst of candor.

What we sometimes forget is that people who’ve made a lot of money usually have that as their first priority. Ilitch was very good at getting the taxpayers to foot the bill for his stadiums.

Whether they admit it or not, the Ilitches insisted that historic Tiger Stadium be torn down.

Taxpayers spent more than $100 million to build Comerica Park where the Detroit Tigers now play. Whether they admit it or not, the Ilitches insisted that historic Tiger Stadium be torn down.

The old stadium could easily have been renovated and modernized at a fraction of the cost.

But Mike Ilitch insisted on a new one, and the city was worried that if they didn’t give him what he wanted, he would take his team elsewhere, so they met his demands.

Fifteen years later, much the same happened with the Red Wings. The Michigan Strategic Fund has sold $450 million in bonds to finance the Little Caesar’s Arena now under construction.

When it opens, the city won’t get a penny from parking or the concessions. Everything will go to the Ilitches.

Detroit, at least partly, has put its faith in government by billionaire. Now, much the same is happening with Dan Gilbert. The Quicken loans magnate wants to put a soccer stadium where Wayne County’s criminal justice complex is now.

He is offering to buy the land and build and pay for a criminal justice complex elsewhere. But the amount they’d pay is murky, and would vary depending on some mysterious cost-saving variable. There’s also little reason to conclude that major league soccer can make it in Detroit; it has failed before.

Still, there are those who say that with men like Ilitch and Gilbert, we should listen raptly and give them whatever they desire.

Still, there are those who say that with men like Ilitch and Gilbert, we should listen raptly and give them whatever they desire.

Well, that doesn’t do it for me.

Yes, they deserve respect, but so do the rest of us.

Detroit has had a history of hoping for powerful men to save it, whether it be the first Henry Ford, or Gilbert or Ilitch or Mike Duggan or Coleman Young.

They all recorded accomplishments, but no one person can do it on his own. We are all in this together, and always will be.

When the county makes its final decision on Dan Gilbert’s soccer stadium plan, I hope that’s something its leaders keep in mind.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.