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Commentary: Hope among the ruins in Detroit

Nobody can deny that Detroit is in bad shape, especially in terms of city government. Communication between the mayor and the city council has virtually broken down, unless you call searing insults and denunciations communication.

Mayor Dave Bing seems more and more isolated and removed. Many of the city council members seem to be either in a parallel and irrational universe, or determined to drive the city off its own fiscal cliff, into either bankruptcy or some kind of state takeover.

The city has lots of other problems, from public safety to its failing schools, many of which I’ve talked about before, and will probably discuss again. If you’ve been listening to or reading me, you know that nobody could confuse me with Pollyanna.

But there are some very good things happening in Detroit. The downtown is far nicer and more vibrant than 20 years ago. So is the theater district, and Ford Field and especially Comerica Park are first-rate, world-class sports palaces.

Much of this is due to Mike Ilitch, a billionaire who made his money selling cheap pizza, not cars. Ilitch started the revival by renovating the magnificently flamboyant Fox Theater a quarter-century ago. He went on to push through Comerica Park.

And now he has a new project he wants to see finished while he is still alive. The 83-year-old billionaire wants a new, $650 million multipurpose arena that would house his Detroit Red Wings, but also be available for other things as well.

Earlier this year, he proclaimed that “the city needs activity,“ and told reporters “there’s gotta be some bold moves now.“

You might think that this might be the worst possible time to propose a new facility in Detroit. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen with city government. Nor is this a good year for hockey: Ilitch‘s Detroit Red Wings have been idled by a strike which is threatening to destroy the entire season.

But billionaires often become billionaires by not following conventional wisdom. Years ago, when the renovated Fox Theatre reopened, a writer I know thanked the man most call “Mr. Ilitch” for doing something for Detroit.

Ilitch said he would be happy if the theater helped Detroit’s image, but told him he did it to make money. And he has.

Nobody should confuse development with philanthropy. Eyebrows were raised back in the ‘90s when Ilitch and then-Mayor Dennis Archer got mostly poor Detroiters to tax themselves to help build Comerica Park. And though Ilitch’s Olympia Development intends to invest heavily in the new arena, he is counting on a good bit of public money being appropriated for it as well.

Times are much worse now, but perhaps because of Ilitch’s track record, officials are making supportive noises. Yesterday, the head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation noted that times were hard, but said the city was in “desperate need” of a new hockey arena, and indicated he thought it might also stimulate commercial, retail, and housing development.

These days, Mike Ilitch looks terribly frail, as anyone who saw him on television when his Tigers won the pennant, knows.

Nevertheless, he is working to build Detroit’s future. If that doesn’t make you feel a little optimistic, it should.                                        

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

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