Letter from the Editor: Coming Home

R.J. King
R.J. King

As major announcements go, the decision by the Detroit Pistons to move to Little Caesars Arena from the Palace of Auburn Hills happened in a flash — or within seven months’ time. 

Set to open in September, the 20,000-seat arena, which is under construction at the northwest corner of I-75 and Woodward Avenue, will be home to the Pistons and Detroit Red Wings. It also will host conferences, charity balls, concerts, and other entertainment that, combined, will generate upward of 150 event nights a year within an emerging enclave of 50 square blocks of mixed-use development called District Detroit.

Normally, it takes years for a professional sports team to analyze the financial commitment to build or move to a multimillion-dollar stadium, establish partnerships with private and public entities, win approval from the respective league(s), work with schedule planners, and sell the new seats, suites, and sponsorships.   

The Pistons’ timing couldn’t have been better. The Red Wings, owned by Mike and Marian Ilitch, have spent more than six years working with the city and the state to finance Little Caesars Arena; acquire the land; account for water, sewer, and energy uses; finalize the design; line up contractors; and so on.

Why were the Pistons eager to move so quickly?

In a word: logistics. For the next 14 years, I-75 will be widened to eight lanes from six lanes between Eight Mile and Square Lake roads. The weekday traffic jams are stressful and inefficient, not only for commuters, but for fans clamoring to see a basketball game, a concert, or a circus. And even before the construction project began, traffic was so bad before Pistons games that Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. and majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, says he could get from his former office near I-275 and Eight Mile in Livonia to Cleveland more quickly than driving to the Palace. 

His itinerary: Drive from Livonia to Willow Run Airport, take a 20-minute flight to Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport, and from there a five-minute car ride to Quicken Loans Arena. Now that he’s moved the majority of his businesses to downtown Detroit, he can get to Cleveland even faster by flying out of Detroit City Airport.

Plus, let’s face it: The region hardly benefited from the Palace’s location 35 miles from downtown Detroit. With few restaurants near the venue, no semblance of an urban environment to entertain fans before and after events, a near ban on tailgating, and a frustrating exit strategy where vehicles are routed every which way save toward the freeway, the arena’s lack of surrounding amenities proved to be an albatross. It’s no wonder that, after the Pistons open their new headquarters and practice facility north of Little Caesars Arena in 2018, the Palace will be demolished and replaced — most likely by an automotive supplier. About the only things salvageable are the entry roads, some of the parking, and the landscaping. Not much of a legacy.

Yes, the Pistons are following the Detroit Lions and returning to their urban roots to create the most concentrated district of sports teams in the country, if not the world. In hindsight, they should never have left.

— R.J. King, rjking@dbusiness.com