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Howes: What happens when developers don't keep a promise?

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

Detroit’s gleaming new Little Caesars Arena is a hot venue in a reviving downtown. But the surrounding district is controversial because the Ilitch family has yet to deliver the vision it promised.

You’d think a family that’s owned two professional franchises for a couple of decades would intuitively know a transcendent major-league rule: what matters is what you do , not what you say. Instead, the Ilitch family — owners of the Tigers and the Red Wings —  finds itself fighting a recurring public relations battle, thanks to a segment this week on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. The central charge is not new to both champions and critics of the family.

The Ilitches invested more than $1 billion in their District Detroit. That’s the area anchored by the city-owned Little Caesars Arena, partially financed by $324 million dollars of taxpayer money.

The issue? Much of the housing, retail, and restaurant development that was promised as part of the deal to get public money has yet to materialize.

What has materialized? More revenue-producing parking lots — much to the consternation of residents, preservationists, and some elected officials.

This is a problem. Not just for the Ilitch family, whose patriarch Mike and his wife Marian deserve credit for betting on Detroit long before doing so was cool. It’s also a problem for other current and would-be investors pursuing landmark projects in other parts of town — and asking for incremental help under existing tax-incentive programs and community benefits agreements.

I’m talking mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert’s plans for the Hudson’s site and the Monroe Block. Or Ford Motor’s Corktown campus anchored by a renovated Michigan Central Depot. Or Fiat Chrysler’s new Jeep assembly plant on the city’s east side.

All of them, and others, must navigate public skepticism deepened by the partially unfulfilled promises of District Detroit. This shouldn’t be at all surprising in a town whose civic DNA bears a healthy mistrust of the corporate and monied classes now steadily returning to the city and spending big bucks to do it.

In a statement, the Ilitch organization labeled the HBO segment a “self-interested, sensationalized and inaccurate report designed to attract viewers instead of a balanced report on the rebirth of Detroit and our contributions to the City’s turnaround.” And it said the Ilitch family “exceeded” its commitment and spawned “numerous” development projects around the arena.

Maybe so. But too many of its other commitments remain unfulfilled to satisfy critics or, frankly, a pair of naked eyes scanning the arena’s neighborhood.

Here’s the thing: the reinvention of Detroit is marked by developers and corporations who did what they said they would do. They repurposed iconic buildings like Gilbert, expanded corporate campuses like DTE Energy, bought a dilapidated train station in Corktown like Ford, and built new residential developments like The Platform and the Roxbury Group.

The Ilitch family is a major contributor to the economic revival of Detroit, a trailblazer whose example others followed after it became a helluva lot easier to do so. But it’s also true that the long arc of its redevelopment efforts moves more slowly and more selectively than its grand plans seem to promise.

That’s a problem only they can fix.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. 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.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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