Storyline: New Pistons Arena

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A legal showdown over whether $34.5 million in public funding should be used to finance the Detroit Pistons move downtown took another twist Monday when the NBA, Palace Sports & Entertainment — the company that owns the team — and Olympia Entertainment were added to a federal lawsuit seeking to force a vote on the issue. The entities were added to the 16-count lawsuit, which was filed June 27 by Robert Davis and City Clerk candidate D. Etta Wilcoxon against the Detroit Public Schools Community District and its president. The pair is arguing that the Little Caesars Arena project and Pistons move should not be funded with public dollars without a vote of Detroit residents.

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The NBA may not approve the Pistons’ move to Detroit if all legal and financing matters are not settled before its board meets next month, according to an affidavit by the team’s chief financial officer. In a sworn affidavit filed late Friday, Palace Sports & Entertainment and Detroit Pistons CFO Greg Campbell said the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court June 1 by activist Robert Davis and City Clerk candidate D. Etta Wilcoxon, might hamper the team’s plans to play their first preseason game on Oct. 4 in Detroit, nearly 40 years after former owner Bill Davidson took the team to Oakland County.

Campbell said receiving the public dollars was a “condition” of the team’s agreement with the Detroit Downtown Development Authority, the public entity that owns the Little Caesars Arena which is also a new home to the Detroit Red Wings. The estimated cost of the project has increased from $450 million to $862 million and the project is anticipated to be 62% privately funded and 38% publicly funded. A new DDA proposal that council is to vote on Tuesday would issue an additional $34.5 million in bonds to support the Pistons’ relocation.

The Pistons’ move to Auburn Hills in 1989 helped usher in the modern age of the league. Detroit had already left the city, moving to the Silverdome to play in 1978, and set Finals records for attendance in 1988 against the Los Angeles Lakers. But the Palace was something different altogether. It was designed for, and patronized by, the wealthy of Oakland County and the nearby environs, not guys like “Leon the Barber,” the famed heckler back in the day at Cobo Arena (though Leon did sit behind opposing benches at the Palace for a while). Or, as John Salley, one of the Bad Boys Pistons, famously put it: “we used to play in front of the auto workers. Now we play in front of the auto executives.” But it remained one of the league’s loudest buildings, and home-court advantages, for many years.

Another luminary in favor of the Pistons’ transfer to downtown Detroit: Stan Van Gundy. “Exciting move,” the Pistons head coach said following Wednesday’s shootaround, which preceded tonight’s 7:30 p.m. game against Miami at The Palace. “I believe Dave Bing has made the point,” Van Gundy continued, referring to the former Detroit mayor and Pistons star from the ‘60s and ‘70s, “that more than any other sport, basketball is a city game. More than any sport, basketball belongs in the city.”

Detroit Pistons Owner Tom Gores, Ilitch Holdings, Inc. President and CEO Christopher Ilitch and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced today agreements under which the Pistons will move to downtown Detroit and begin playing at the new Little Caesars Arena starting next season. The move will include construction of a new state-of-the-art Pistons practice facility and corporate headquarters that will bring substantial new investment and economic activity to the city, and a comprehensive community benefits plan that will bring millions of dollars more into Detroit neighborhoods. “This is a historic day for our franchise, and for the City of Detroit,” Mr. Gores said. “We’re moving to a beautiful new arena that will provide a state-of-the-art fan experience, and we’re investing in the future of Detroit.”

From an economic standpoint, the move by the Pistons will provide substantial benefits to the local economy, which is already getting a shot in the arm from The District Detroit, a $1.2 billion sports and entertainment development. Relocating the Pistons and building a new practice facility and corporate offices will generate an additional $596.2 million in estimated total economic impact in Metro Detroit and create more than 2,100 jobs, according to a study by the University of Michigan Center for Sport and Policy commissioned by PS&E. That includes an estimated 1,722 construction and construction-related jobs, and 442 permanent positions. The move also could benefit Auburn Hills, Oakland County and the State of Michigan if the Palace of Auburn Hills, where the Pistons currently play, is redeveloped, according to a separate study by the U of M Center. In that event, the study projects a net increase of $7.3 million per year in new property and personal income taxes and the creation of 1,950 construction and permanent jobs.

With businessman Dan Gilbert building his empire downtown and the Ilitches moving ahead with their projects in the new arena district, many more people can see something sustainable growing in Detroit. “Back then, we wanted to be a catalyst,” Marantette said. “When others wouldn’t go there, we were going to go there and put a stake in the ground. That’s what Harbortown was.” Davidson was hardly alone in leaving the city; two-thirds of the city’s population, along with many businesses, also skipped out. Nor was Davidson the only suburban sprawler who bad-mouthed Detroit — Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson comes to mind with his often inflammatory remarks belittling the city.

In 1991, I sat down with billionaire businessman Bill Davidson and asked him why he moved his Pistons out of Detroit a few years earlier. Davidson, otherwise amiable, shocked me with his bluntness and severity. “To me it was crystal clear what was going to happen to the city of Detroit,” Davidson said. “People may not like it, but I didn’t cause it to happen. Twenty years ago, I could have told you what the city of Detroit would be like today, knowing what was there. We didn’t move out of anything that had anything positive going for it.”

A reshuffling is underway among the leadership group at Palace Sports & Entertainment, the organizational entity over the Detroit Pistons. Vice chairman Arn Tellem and Bob Wentworth, a key figure of the ownership group, will now oversee business operations, while PS&E president and CEO Dennis Mannion will move into a new role, a person with firsthand knowledge of the process told the Free Press on Saturday. Pistons vice president of public relations Kevin Grigg confirmed the news but declined further comment.

When rumors of the Pistons moving have bubbled to the surface in the past, Platinum Equity spokesman Mark Barnhill has said three criteria must be met to even consider such a move: The Pistons must be an equal partner in the new arena, not just a tenant. The Pistons want to get a return on the substantial improvements made to the Palace of Auburn Hills since Gores bought the team. The Pistons have to ensure that the move doesn’t negatively impact season-ticket holders and sponsors.
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