Midwest Mecca

A proposal to build a soccer stadium and mixed-use development in downtown Detroit will be an economic stimulus for private businesses and government operations.


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Images courtesy of rossetti

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An impressive collection of new restaurants, apartments, sports venues, and renovated theaters has sprouted in downtown Detroit over the past few years. But Quicken Loans Inc. Founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert, a catalyst for much of the new development in Detroit, and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, say the downtown needs a more attractive “front door” to greet those coming into the city.

The pair is proposing a $1 billion development that includes a professional soccer stadium, a hotel, offices, residences, stores, and restaurants on Gratiot Avenue at I-375. The pair says it will serve as a welcoming gateway to the fast-growing downtown Detroit sports-and-entertainment district.

 See Related // History of Soccer in Detroit  

Supporters and some development experts agree, saying that adding a Major League Soccer center to the professional football, baseball, and hockey stadiums downtown could be an economic boon to the city and capitalize on the rising interest in soccer.

“The thing about great walkable urban places is that more is better,” says Christopher Leinberger, a professor at George Washington University’s School of Business and an expert on urban development. “As you add more activity, downtown areas become safer, more vital, and attract more people. It starts this upward spiral that generates more taxes and jobs.”

Wayne County, which owns the site where Gilbert and Gores want to build a 20,000-seat to 25,000-seat soccer stadium and surrounding development, could shut the front door on the two billionaires. Gilbert has been working for three years to acquire the property, which includes the unfinished Wayne County Jail; a project halted in 2013 over concerns about massive cost overruns.

“Do we want a major jail at the front door of downtown?” Gilbert said when he, Gores, and Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber announced their plan in late April. “If there’s an alternative, is that a better alternative?”

The financially strapped county sank close to $150 million into the jail construction project under former County Executive Robert Ficano. His successor, Warren Evans, has said he thinks the best solution is to finish the work on the jail, although he and other county officials have continued their discussions with Gilbert. “We cannot allow the taxpayers to foot the bill for anything over and above the cost of finishing the jail at the current site,” says James Canning, a Wayne County spokesman. 

Gilbert wants to move the jail operations — along with a juvenile detention center, the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, and neighboring facilities — to the former Mound Road Correctional Facility on the city’s east side. The proposal also may include moving the 36th District Court at Madison and Brush streets to the Mound complex.

Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Rock Ventures, the umbrella organization overseeing Gilbert’s portfolio of more than 50 companies, says his team is working to figure out the cost difference between finishing what he calls “the failed jail” and building a new criminal justice complex on another site. The outcome could determine how much Gilbert and Gores would offer to pay for the Gratiot site.

As part of his research, Gilbert has hired CGL Cos., a Miami-based correctional facility consultant and builder, to estimate the costs of completing the jail or moving the operations to the Mound Road site. Cullen says the analysis should be completed by the end of September, about the same time Canning says the county intends to request bids on finishing the partially built jail. “We need an alternative scenario (for a new jail) in the same time frame,” Cullen says. 

In April, Gilbert said there was no “Plan B” for the soccer stadium development. Cullen concurred. “All of our focus is on the jail site,” he says. MLS Commissioner Garber said the location is a “key part to the plan” in which the league would grant an MLS team franchise to Gilbert and Gores.

The 15-acre redevelopment project, bounded by Gratiot, the I-375 service drive, and Macomb and Beaubien streets, would need to be approved by the Wayne County Commission. As it stands, the current site does not generate tax revenue. If the county moved the jails and courts to Mound Road, another non-tax-producing parcel, it would generate substantial new revenue from Gilbert and Gores’ private development in the form of property taxes and other levies. 

MLS says independent studies in comparably sized MLS franchise markets have predicted a total area economic impact of $1.2 billion in their respective regions over 30 years.

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