Lots of talk flying around the Metro Times newsroom this week about the stadium deal, which I’d heard about but actually not paid much attention to. We’ve been through this before, right? Ilitch wants something? The city will bend over backward to accommodate our local pizza caesar. He wants to leave a 30-year-old stadium for a new one? No problem, there must be a way to sweeten the deal for the billionaire with a few hundred million dollars of public money. And sports-mad, billionaire-worshipping Detroiters have absolutely no problem with that sort of thing, as we all learned 15 years ago when Ilitch got a similar subsidy for Comerica Park. I figure, hey, why get upset? As writer and academic Jerry Herron used to be fond of saying of Detroit, quoting the Roman Polanski movie about a wide-open town where the rich always get their way: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
With cynicism running this deep, it still felt decidedly weird around the office as the details of the stadium deal came into focus for us. Now, I already mistrusted Ilitch, seeing him as a pizza mogul who, once, 30 years ago, refurbished his flagship property. Since then, his actions have really taken the shine off that once-upbeat reputation. Ilitch is behind on his taxes, apparently prefers gravel lots to historic buildings, has seemingly let whole blocks fall apart while he builds his bigger plans to replace what’s there with his dream of a hockey stadium that he wants us all to pay for. Fine, whatever. Because Chinatown.
But when you hear that the funding mix for this guy adds up to be 58 percent publicly funded, you start to wonder if this is even off the charts for Chinatown. And then there’s another proposed land transfer, one the DDA is reportedly cool with: giving Ilitch the responsibility for driving development of former Detroit Economic Development Corporation-owned and city-owned properties on dozens of blocks of land between Foxtown and his wife Marian’s casino. That’s right: When developers are coveting a reinvigorated downtown Detroit, where occupancy is higher than 99 percent as of last summer (according to D:Hive), the DDA would give Ilitch the responsibility for driving development on a swath of properties around Cass Park. Jesus. Is there anything Ilitch has managed to develop without public money or free land? Maybe Hockeytown Cafe? This sort of thing makes us feel like we’re entering 19th century Robber Baron territory here.
So it’s not enough that the public has to pay our pepperoni pie croesus hundreds of millions of dollars again, now we’re talking about transferring some of the land that is poised for development over to the DDA so Ilitch can have that too? Will that big land deal also earn cash-poor Detroit another measly dollar?
Would this fly in any other major metropolitan city? Would any city other than, say, St. Louis, just brazenly lease some of the most valuable land, and give hundreds of millions of dollars, to an already fabulously wealthy person who will then charge people to park, eat and watch sports? Would any other city sweeten the deal by offering land on a path leading up a major road to another family-owned property, and do it in such a way where, since it’s under DDA control, no taxes need be paid to the city? Or are we misunderstanding something here?
We shouldn’t be quoting Chinatown. We should turn to over-the-top satirist Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 Detroit film for the right quote: “I’d buy that for a dollar!”