Michigan And Troubleby John Brattain
April 14, 2006
Just go away.
That, in a nutshell, encompasses Mike Ilitch’s attitude toward venerable Tiger Stadium.
It’s not about baseball fans, it’s not about the city’s history, it’s not about an historic landmark, it’s about protecting Mike Ilitch’s wallet.
Commendably, it should be noted, Ilitch put a bit of his own money into Comerica Park, but what should not be lost sight of is that so did the city of Detroit—much more than Ilitch did. For those who are unfamiliar with how has Detroit worked over the last few years, it can be boiled down to this: Nothing is done without Ilitch’s blessing. If Ilitch were to request the firstborn of mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his predecessor Dennis Archer to sacrifice on the pitcher’s mound on Opening Day as a promotion, they’d dutifully go home and say “You’re my child and I’ve always loved you. But this is Mike Ilitch and you should feel honored …”
Let’s face it, the city reacts much to Ilitch as the drunken prom date in a 14 year old’s wildest fantasy—no matter how many times ... she just can’t get enough.
Detroit exists to protect his financial interests.
Remember the All-Star Game in Detroit? The 950 seats added for the event were paid for in part by $400,000 in county money.
Detroit's economic development director Mulugetta Birru said: "Having 950 more seats brings more people to downtown to buy food and beverages and shop."
Two problems. One, the stadium had more than enough seating and two: What downtown? Woodward Avenue looks more like downtown Beirut and most of the economic activity going on there is probably illegal. Of course like any good servant Birru predicted that the new seats "would generate $1.3 million in spillover downtown spending during the week of the All Star Game."
For you math whizzes, the Detroit News pointed out "that amounts to $1,368 of spending per spectator." This is after they spring for the overpriced tickets and concessions. As Neil deMause pointed out wryly: "I'm also pretty sure that Detroit doesn't have a 30% sales tax, meaning the new tax revenues from even $1.3 million would amount to just a tiny fraction of the county's cost."
This fact should always be kept in mind when you read whatever propaganda the city government puts into the media regarding Tiger Stadium. After all, to do otherwise is to admit that they're willing participants in a regular, royal reaming—in fact they even pay for um, services rendered with their constituents hard earned dollars. Ilitch wants The Corner to be relegated to the dustbin of history, both literally and figuratively, ergo the city is doing everything to accommodate his wishes.
There have been ideas put forth to reuse old Tiger Stadium. Some were flights of fancy to be sure, but according to the city of Detroit all proposals have been just that.
This is the same city that touted giving several hundred million dollars to professional sports as a savior to their embattled economy.
How’s that working out anyway?
Getting back on track; Peter Comstock Riley (owner of Michigan & Trumbull LLC) has been trying to get something done for the venerable old park since the park closed.
Riley proposed his company provide the maintenance and security at the stadium for one year, saving the city a few hundred thousand dollars. However Detroit has been paying Ilitch to do just that at a cost of about $420,000 per year. Ilitch has done such a fine job of this that when MLB had shown an interest in holding an All Star event at The Corner it was rejected because "the ballpark's interior is in disrepair."
So the city would rather pad Mike Ilitch’s wallet than have somebody with an interest in saving the park offer a bit of relief to a city in desperate need of cash. Adding to the sleaze is the fact that maintenance on the stadium had never been put to a bid. As a matter of fact, city officials have yet to produce any contract or agreement detailing the agreement with the Tigers, save “Mike Ilitch thy will be done.” In short it’s like the person put in charge of maintaining the life support of a wealthy patient is the primary beneficiary named in the will and that person never cared much for ol' granny…
How did the city respond to Riley? According to an alleged e-mail (which has not been denied), Walter Watkins who is chief development officer for the City of Detroit responded:
“After careful consideration, we have decided that we cannot accept your offer. Several prospective developments are under consideration, and we feel we can provide the necessary maintenance and security in the interim. We continue to appreciate your interest in the Stadium and wish you all the very best.”
Two points here: one, they think the person they’re paying to look after the park—the one who wants it gone—is doing a terrific job and two, there are several developments under consideration that they feel are superior to Riley’s proposal.
For the record—Riley wants to put a minor league team into the park.
Another e-mail from Watkins tipped the city’s hand:
“While we continue to listen to a number of proposals we are not necessarily supportive of a rehab or partial demo and would consider projects that need full demolition.”
If you’ve ever been to Detroit, you'd know that they've got reams of buildings that have been vacant far longer than Tiger Stadium. (Drive down Woodward Ave. sometime—it’s a veritable cafeteria of buildings that could enjoy some quality time with a wrecking ball.) However, the city is fine with letting them remain. Any guesses as to why?
None of them pose a potential threat to Mr. Ilitch’s bottom line.
There are far more people eager to save Tiger Stadium than a lot of other empty structures, yet the building folks want most to save is the one the city is most eager to be rid of.
Interestingly, Riley has been trying for six years to get his foot in the door unsuccessfully. Over that six years, the city has been lining Ilitch’s pockets with gold for “maintaining” the park. If somebody gets in there, then Ilitch’s free money dries up. Now that the money has been almost dried up, we’re hearing folks in charge saying that it’s time for Tiger Stadium to go. Now that Ilitch has milked every last dollar from the ballpark, it has now become a liability if someone goes in there and doesn’t something constructive with it—something that might compete with Ilitch and his Tigers.
So it’s time to kill the old lady off and dispose of the body. Ilitch won’t (obviously)—he’s trying to get his political servants to do it for him and take it out the pockets of the people, some of whom actually want to save The Corner. You see, in the final days of Tiger Stadium as home of the Tabbies, the city levieed a ticket surcharge to finance the demolition of the ballpark. Instead, that money went back to Ilitch for “maintenance” (if you’re wondering about the air quotes check out Stranded At The Corner and see the value the politicos in Detroit derived from the money paid to Ilitch to look after the park), and now Ilitch has the money and the city is now obligated to find the necessary millions to finance the demolition of the stadium (estimated between $3-7 million).
Furthermore, Tiger Stadium has value as a tourist attraction/destination. A redevelopment along those lines would be a net positive for Detroit, but not necessarily for Mike Ilitch. If Detroit politicians are consistent about one thing; when it comes down to what benefits its constituents and what benefits Ilitch, Ilitch will win every time.
According to Bob Schultz, co-owner of Michigan & Trumbull LLC, dealing with the city has “been like talking to a refrigerator. As soon as you mention Tiger Stadium, all you hear is that it’s a waste of your time.”
Riley wrote a letter to then mayor Archer in late 2000. He wrote: “I can’t tell you how disappointing the last two months have been in trying to sift over the confusion of who wants to take responsibility for answering questions on the future of Tiger Stadium.”
Riley then turned to the City Council for assistance. Council President Maryann Mahaffey was supportive, but Brenda Scott and Sheila Cockrel were opposed: “I thought one of the issues was that the Comstock Riley proposal doesn’t have the money, and what they were looking for was money from the city to leverage the deal so that they could do us all a favor and take over Tiger Stadium,” said Cockrel.
The city would rather give that money to Ilitch and then pay the costs of demolition on top of it. Cockerel added: “… [I]t’s up to Mr. Comstock Riley to decide if he wants to go to the Tigers to see if he wants to negotiate a deal.” (italics mine). So although the city owns the stadium--and paid for its upkeep—they have ceded its future to Ilitch.
The mind boggles.
There have been other proposals and ideas for The Corner, but unless it involves completely removing Tiger Stadium from the surface of the earth, the city isn’t interested because Ilitch wants it gone. Doesn't it strike you as slightly odd that every proposal that involves saving the park or part of it is touted by the city as unrealistic, while the only ones viewed as potentially viable involve the complete destruction of the ball yard?
The city denies arm-twisting from the Tigers. Detroit’s Planning and Development Director Henry Hagood says: “I never receive any calls from anybody connected with the Tigers organization … We don’t believe another ball club should go in there.” (italics mine)
Um, and just why does he "believe" this? Is he some kind of expert on baseball markets, or maybe there are no calls needed from the Tigers because they had their marching orders issued by Ilitch from the get-go: once the money is gone, so is the stadium at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. After all does the comment "We don’t believe another ball club should go in there" sound like it would originate from the political or economic arena? Is there any reason Detroit citizenry wouldn't want a minor league team there? So who is Hagood speaking in behalf of; the people he professes to serve, or the person he is actually serving: Mike Ilitch?
And on it goes.
Free enterprise and democracy are supposedly wonderful things. I t’s a damned shame Detroit haven’t had the opportunity to find out.
Citizens of Detroit, consider yourselves owned.
References and Resources
A hole in the heart, Metro Times
Striking Out, Metro Times
Detroit ignores calls to save ballpark, Detroit News
Taxpayers foot bill for Tiger seats, Detroit News
Is it the final out for Tiger Stadium? Detroit News
The Fabulous Ruins Of Detroit
Stranded At The Corner
Field Of Schemes
Our good friend, and THT stalwart, John Brattain passed away on March 24, 2009. John was a prolific writer, whose work can also be read at Sympatico/MSN Sports and Baseball Digest Daily. John's work was also featured at USA Today, MLBtalk, ESPN Insider, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Analysts and The Baseball Journals. Never afraid to express himself in any medium, he was also a frequent radio speaker.