Do Not Pay the Pistons to Move Downtown

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Tom Gores is a rich guy who is starting to sound like he wants some free money for you to help him move his team downtown. Don’t give him a cent.

Written by Kyle Magin

Detroit is a city with a ton of assets and needs right now. In order to turn into the city it could be—an affordable, safe metropolis with ample access to fresh water in a century where all of those things will be commodities—Detroit has to reduce poverty, increase the quality of education it offers and limit its debts to financing the super-valuable things that help a city grow. Good schools, good infrastructure and public safety and good drivers of trade with its ports, airports and roadways are what Detroit needs.

It doesn’t need to help finance the Detroit Pistons’ move back downtown. The Pistons are growing restive in their current abode—the lovely Palace of Auburn Hills in Oakland County, about 30 minutes north of Detroit.

Owner Tom Gores sees the $284 million in public money getting thrown at fellow Detroit sports owner Mike Ilitch (Red Wings, Tigers) for his new planned downtown hockey arena/entertainment complex/live/work development and wants in on the action. Bad. So bad, in fact, Gores hired former NBA and baseball superagent Arn Tellem ostensibly to sound out a partnership with Ilitch on the arena or to build one of the Pistons’ own downtown.

One doesn’t hire Tellem to play nice. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that he’ll sit down with Ilitch to hard-ball a negotiation on having the Pistons play downtown with the Wings. If that doesn’t work, it’s not a stretch to imagine Tellem going to Detroit’s City Council and asking for free money of his own to bring the team downtown and, who knows, maybe getting Oakland County or Auburn Hills into a bidding war to keep the team.

There are, obnoxiously, fans and writers in Detroit who would probably back a publicly financed stadium deal. That would be a free giveaway of money raised from hard-working taxpayers to plutocrats in graphic tee-shirts and tailored suits who can damn well afford to build their own stadium.

Their arguments boil down thusly:

  • It’s a haul to drive to Auburn Hills.
  • Auburn Hills is not Detroit. If you back Detroit’s renaissance, you must back moving a team downtown.
  • The Palace is old.

Let’s handle these as they are stated above.

The drive to Auburn Hills from the city on a weeknight can be a pain in the ass. That’s true. But, seeing as 70 percent of the Pistons’ ticket-buying public came from Oakland County, even during the team’s best years in the mid-00s, there’s nothing broken here to fix.

No, Auburn Hills is not Detroit. There’s a ton of positive forward momentum in Detroit right now, and Oakland County (home to the city’s wealthy suburbs) much as it long has, grows slowly toward the next popular turn in suburban development’s hunger for a new shade of beige, taupe or maroon.

Auburn Hills remains as attractive today for what hasn’t changed as it was in 1988 when former Pistons owner (God rest his soul) Bill Davidson built the Palace with private funding. It’s still just off of I-75—the city and suburbs’ major north-south artery—it still has ample on-site parking, it still provides easy access to much of Detroit’s ticket-buying public.

Finally, the Palace is also, still, a spectacular venue. Sure, there’s no giant glass pop-out looking over a bustling downtown or rusted COR-Ten exterior. It won’t set a design blog’s tongue-a-wagging. The Palace does still house as many private boxes as almost any arena in the NBA, just as it did when it was constructed and thought to be too ahead of its time in the late 80s. You can’t find a bad sightline outside of the arena’s upper reaches.

I know because I spent my college years at Oakland University, which is right next door, literally overturning couch cushions to come up with $8 for nosebleed seats to the Pistons’ 2004 title run. There are opulent clubhouses for dining and drinking and every imaginable vendor can peddle his or her wares in the stadium’s ample concourses. The Palace is not Wrigley.

If Gores and Tellem find a way to privately finance a downtown stadium, more power to them. I’ll miss the Palace for nostalgic reasons and when I visit and have to park in a lot 6 blocks away from the new venue. But if they’re looking for public money or to partner on Ilitch’s free taxpayer money giveaway,

I’m off-board, full stop.

The Palace is a perfectly serviceable venue in a part of town that has shown it will support a winner for decades (every Pistons title winner you can remember played in the Palace to sold-out crowds.) To give a billionaire and his millionaire lackey your money (or worse, money from actual Detroiters) so you can have a shiny new downtown stadium next to the bars and clubs and casinos is noxious to the point where I feel nauseous.

It’s that sort of thinking that added a pile to the massive debt burden Detroit only recently shed in bankruptcy.

Until the Pistons can pay their own way, I’ll meet you in Oakland County for a bite before a game. How’s Jimmy John’s on Lapeer sound?

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  1. It is just amazing that these arena’s can outlive there use in such a short time period. However the push is to relocate downtown, we shall see.