A three-block span of Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit would be renamed in honor of the late Mike Ilitch under a bill introduced by state Sen. Coleman Young Jr., who is running for mayor.
If the measure passes, Woodward between Montcalm and East Adams would be changed to “Mike Ilitch Boulevard,” where the controversial businessman and his wife Marian spurred an entertainment revival following the renovation of the historic Fox Theatre in 1988.
Instrumental in the Ilitch family’s success was Young’s father, the late Coleman A. Young, who served as the city’s first black mayor from 1974 to 1994.
The sharp-tongued mayor and former union organizer forged an unlikely and often overlooked bond with Ilitch, setting the stage for development in an increasingly impoverished city where residents, sports teams and businesses were fleeing to the suburbs. But the relationship also was fueled by Young’s frequent use of public dollars to subsidize private development, a practice that has become all-too-familiar in Detroit.
The budding relationship began in the early 1980s, when Young negotiated an irresistible deal with Ilitch to keep the Red Wings from following the Lions and Pistons to the suburbs. The founder of the budding pizza empire Little Caesars, Ilitch had purchased the beleaguered hockey team in 1982 for just $8 million from unpopular owner Bruce Norris.
To persuade Ilitch to keep the team at the Joe Louis Arena, which the mayor built using $57.8 million in city and state taxes, the mayor offered a deal that Ilitch couldn’t resist – control over parking structures and the adjacent Cobo Hall, a monthly property tax capped at $250,000 a year and free police and landscaping services. With some additional perks, the 30-year lease was essentially the same one Norris signed three years prior.
At the time, critics, including city council members, blasted the lease as a “sweetheart deal,” but it kept the Red Wings in Detroit for another 35 years.
The hockey team is moving to a new arena this year under another controversial deal that included more than $250 million in public finances as the city was filing for municipal bankruptcy.
Young also successfully partnered with Ilitch to bring to major boxing title fights to Detroit.
In the mid-1980s, Young and his economic development czar Emmett Moten Jr. threatened to condemn the Fox Theatre and other properties owned by developer Chuck Forbes if he didn’t relinquish the theater to the city in exchange for cash. At a $2 million loss to taxpayers, the city sold the theater to Ilitch in 1987 and transferred property around the Fox, including the United Artists building, to the pizza king for future development.
A year later, Ilitch hired Moten as vice president of development for Little Caesars.
In 1992, Ilitch, a former minor league baseball player, fulfilled his dream of owning the Tigers, purchasing the team from Tom Monaghan for $85 million.
At the time, the team played at Tiger Stadium, and Mayor Young was working behind the scenes to get public financing for a new ballpark in the area where the city transferred property to Iitch. Fierce resistance from fans and city and state officials prevented the deal from happening while Young was still in office.
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In 2000, eight years after Young served his final term, Ilitch moved the Tigers to Comerica Park across from the Fox Theatre on the stretch of Woodward that Sen. Young wants to rename “Mike Ilitch Boulevard.
Ilitch died on Feb. 10, 2017.
Sen. Young said his father and Ilitch “were able to build the blueprint for the city’s future.”
“Mr. Ilitch has done so much for the city of Detroit and the people here,” Sen. Young told me. “A lot of people were able to work and feed their families because of Ilitch.”
Young said renaming a portion of Woodward after Ilitch “is a great way to persevere his legacy.”
The bill needs approval from the state Senate and House of Representatives, along with Gov. Snyder’s signature.
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Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.