Pistons sale raises hopes that downtown Detroit will get a boost

A family-owned company in Detroit has reportedly secured the highest bid to buy basketball's Detroit Pistons. Some say the firm wants to move the team downtown to help revive the city.

By , Staff writer

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    The Pistons' Richard Hamilton drives past the Heat's Joel Anthony during the Heat's 2010 preseason home opener at American Airlines Arena.
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The possibility of a single company owning three top sports franchises in Detroit has officials there hopeful that it will help generate an economic revival in that city’s flagging downtown.

Ilitch Holdings Inc., a family-owned company in Detroit, has secured the highest bid to purchase the Detroit Pistons, according to The Detroit News. The current owner is Karen Davidson, the widow of former owner William Davidson, who died last year.

Ilitch owns two other major sports franchises in the city – the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers – as well as several entertainment companies including Olympia Entertainment, which produces concerts throughout the area and is credited for reviving the city’s downtown redevelopment.

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Insiders tracking Ilitch say the company wants to move the Pistons to downtown Detroit, where the basketball team hasn’t played a game since 1978, because it will help generate revenue for several of the company’s other holdings, such as the MotorCity Casino Hotel.

It’s likely, says The Detroit News, that the company will build an arena to house both the Red Wings hockey team and Pistons. The Red Wings, Tigers, and Lions (owned by a scion of Henry Ford), currently play downtown in Joe Louis Arena, Comerica Park, and Ford Field, respectively.

Detroit’s downtown contains glittery theaters and large sports palaces, but just blocks away are abandoned homes. The possibility of the Pistons relocating to the downtown will not be a “silver bullet” in reversing the city’s economic decline, says economist Charles Ballard at Michigan State University in East Lansing. But, he adds, some kind of added development there is better than none at all.

“Does this help? Absolutely. It’s so easy to give up on the city and move to the suburbs, but I applaud those who want to take a chance,” he says.

Ilitch’s bid for the Pistons is part of the company’s expected acquisition of Palace Sports & Entertainment, which owns the NBA team as well as the Palace of Auburn Hills, the suburban complex that the Pistons currently call home.

The bid is reportedly more than $400 million. Both parties are currently in a 30-day negotiating period, which is expected to end the first week of November. If a purchase agreement is not produced, the Davidson family can entertain competing bids from other companies.

Spokespersons on both sides of the deal have declined comment.

Detroit City Council president Charles Pugh said at a council meeting that the Ilitch family was the only one “in the country that should have bought the Pistons” because of its background in redeveloping the city’s downtown. Michael Ilitch is a Detroit-area native who opened his first Little Caesars pizza restaurant in 1959. “This is about the revitalization of Detroit. This is the tipping point for our city,” Mr. Pugh said.

Detroit faces a $325 million budget deficit, and unemployment hovers near 30 percent. Home foreclosures have contributed to miles of abandoned neighborhoods – a problem so endemic that Mayor Dave Bing plans to demolish 10,000 dilapidated or abandoned homes by December 2013.

In his State of the City address in March, Mayor Bing described the city as “near bankrupt financially, ethically, and operationally.”

But on Tuesday, Bing released a statement saying that he is “excited about the possibility” of the Pistons returning to downtown Detroit. “The deal is not done, but we remain optimistic,” he said.

Bing played for the Pistons between 1966 and 1975.

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