Finishing touches being put on Little Caesar’s Arena.
By Jackie Headapohl
Photos by Rob Kohn
Behind the construction fences on Woodward Avenue, near Detroit’s Fox Theatre, Little Caesars Arena — next year’s home to the Red Wings and Pistons — is being transformed. Each day, about 1,400 workers in hard hats and safety green can be found pounding, painting, stacking, moving, tiling, pouring concrete and installing rows of seats that look like red ribbons against a wooden backdrop. The pace is relentless: 1.8 million man hours of work so far as of late March.
Behind it all you’ll find Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, who’s overseeing the project due to be completed Sept. 1. Kid Rock takes the stage Sept. 12, opening the arena to the public. Wilson doesn’t seem nervous. This isn’t his first rodeo. Before joining Olympia Entertainment in February 2010, Wilson had an illustrious 32-year career with the Detroit Pistons, including 22 years as president and CEO of Palace Sports & Entertainment, which was designed largely around his input.
“We are on time to the day,” said Wilson, a tall man with a ready smile who seems to be having fun. “The next few months are going to fly by. Workers are on site 24/7, and it looks like an ant farm. By opening day, everyone on the staff will be holding a paint brush or a broom to take care of last-minute things.”
Home to the Detroit Red Wings, the Detroit Pistons, and sports events, concerts, family shows and community functions, the new Little Caesars Arena will feature a dramatic arena bowl, state-of-the-art technology and fan amenities.
The arena is part of the District Detroit, one of the largest sports and entertainment developments in the country. The mixed-use development led by the Ilitch organization unites six world-class theaters, five neighborhoods and three professional sports venues in one destination.
Wilson was integral to bringing the Pistons to the new arena, a decision announced last November that required various construction changes, including new NBA locker rooms and raising 68 doorways to accommodate the height of professional basketball players.
Wilson said once the arena is finished, the Wings and the Pistons will be able to play on the same day. The conversion from ice to hardwood will take only about four hours.
“Not only will we be hosting the Pistons’ 45 games plus playoffs, we’ll also be getting all the Palace’s concerts and family shows,” Wilson said. “Within the District Detroit, we expect to have more than 1,000 events a year.”
A VISION FOR DETROIT
Although the District Detroit will always be a legacy to the late Mike Ilitch, who said it had been “his dream to again see a vibrant Downtown Detroit,” a tremendous amount of the vision came from his son, Christopher Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., who’s been involved in the project since the get-go, according to Wilson.
“Originally, we just designed this as an arena — that was all it was going to be,” Wilson said. “We had designed the building to be 16 stories tall — a magnificent building. Then Chris said we needed to think bigger … to look at the surrounding area and see if we couldn’t be the connective tissue between Downtown and Midtown, where all this development is taking place.
“We tore up the original plans and redesigned it because you can’t start a neighborhood next to a 16-story building,” Wilson added. “Even the exterior design of the building is such that it feels like it’s been here for 20 years.
“When we’re all done, Chris’ fingerprints will be all over this.”
For Wilson, the project has meant long days and plenty of them. In addition to the arena, Little Caesars’ headquarters campus expansion, a nine-story building near the arena, is under construction. To the north, the Wayne State Mike Ilitch School of Business is already coming out of the ground, thanks to a $40 million donation from Mike and Marian Ilitch. Then there will be a five-star hotel adjacent to the facility. Apartments to the west of the plaza will be in construction when the arena opens.
“We’re going to be in construction for the next 10 years and beyond,” Wilson said, “We’re getting calls from developers all over — New York, Europe, Asia. Everybody wants a piece of this and to be a part of Detroit’s amazing comeback story.”
Wilson said he is amazed by the pace of resurgence in Detroit. “People are no longer just coming to a game and leaving. They’re going to new bars, restaurants, clubs.”
He gives Dan Gilbert a lot of credit for bringing so many people Downtown. “The Ilitches have been in Detroit forever, but Dan provided a lot of momentum,” Wilson said. “It takes two or three people pulling in the same direction to make an impact.”
The District Detroit will ultimately account for a total economic impact of more than $2 billion and create more than 12,500 construction and construction-related jobs in addition to 1,100 permanent jobs. Wilson said the District Detroit will be partnering with Gilbert and Wayne State to provide security.
LITTLE CAESARS ARENA
Ilitch brought in the best consultants and architects from all over the world to design the arena.
“He had us get input from everybody. We talked to players, officials, artists, managers, stagehands — we got input from everybody including the Zamboni driver and the folks at the box office,” Wilson said.
The team also visited facilities in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas and Miami to get their best practices. “At the end, we had this stew of the best ideas in the country, plus the innovative ideas we’ve come up with,” Wilson said.
Fans will enter the arena’s concourses between upper and lower bowls at street level — no steps to climb. And, completely opposite of the cave-like Joe Louis Arena, those concourses will be covered by a translucent plastic roof, giving fans a view of the sky above. Four restaurants will be inside the arena.
“The building is a work of art,” he said. “You’re going to need a few visits to take everything in.”
Wilson has been busy marketing the arena, finding partners and sponsors, selling suites and bringing over season ticket holders from the Joe.
“We thought it would take us a year to sell all the suites, but we sold them out in 40 days,” he said. “And we’ve brought 3,500 season ticket owners through our preview center, where fans can physically test out their seats. Only 20 have decided not to come to the new arena.” NS