Amid All the Adulation, Some Debate Mike Ilitch's Legacy
February 12th, 2017, 9:13 AM
When pizza king and sports magnate Mike Ilitch passed on Friday at age 87 the adulation from everyone from the mayor to the sports fans to the players came pouring out, enough to seemingly qualify him for sainthood.
But in some circles, his legacy is debatable. Not everyone has kind words.
Over the years, while Ilitch built a pizza empire, turned the Red Wings and Tigers into winners and donated tens of millions of dollar to Wayne State University, detractors, rightly or wrongly, criticized his organization for things including failing to pay tens of millions of dollars in TV revenues to the city from the Red Wings and stifling development around the new hockey arena site for many years while he snapped up properties at depressed prices.
Stephen Henderson, head of the Detroit Free Press editorial page wrote in a column:
Ilitch’s long tenure as a shaper of fortunes and dreams, his elaborate and often difficult relationship with the people and institutions of this city — they really make it impossible to oversimplify.
No doubt, he has bettered this community in countless ways big and small. One of my favorite stories about him recalls his paying Rosa Parks’ rent when the civil rights icon fell on hard times. It was a small but enormous gesture — the kind of thing that just exudes goodness.
But he also leaves a complex legacy. The strife over some of his projects and the public subsidies for them. The fans who decried the tenure of his ownership of two of the city’s major sports franchises. They are part of who he was, too.
Without question, this newspaper’s editorial board had a complicated and, at times, tumultuous relationship with Ilitch.
His headstrong approach to seeing his ideas enacted sometimes worked to the unquestioned benefit of the city — think of the Fox Theatre renovation, which took place when there really was no one else making that kind of private investment in downtown Detroit.
It took guts to double down on Detroit back then — and Ilitch put his money where others wouldn’t.
In a Facebook posting, former Detroit News reporter and former newspaper union leader Lou Mleczko wrote:
What claptrap! Ilitch has a new ball park that was partly financed by the public. About 60 percent of the cost for the Red Wings new playpen is courtesy of the taxpayers. These new stadiums pay no property taxes. So Detroit Public Schools, municipal services and Wayne County get nothing from these corporate palaces.
Unlike a number of other cities, Ilitch gets free police details for all sports events as well as at the Fox Theatre. Also, the bars, restaurants downtown have their property taxes "captured" for other downtown pork like a new office/practice facility for the Pistons. Again, no money for schools and other public services.
Let's not forget how Ilitch was one of the baseball owners, who triggered a players union strike/lockout at the start of spring training. Ilitch demanded that Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson use permanent replacements to break the strike but Sparky said no.
Later, when Anderson was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, he insisted in being inducted as a Cincinnati Red---not as manager of the Tigers. It was a direct slap in the face to Ilitch.
Years later, Ilitch was one of the aggressively NHL owners that forced a strike/lockout that wiped out an entire hockey season. Ilitch and his owner brethren demanded and got salary caps because these same owners couldn't control their own reckless spending.
The Facebook page, Keep Building Detroit, posted:
Could we imagine what downtown Detroit would look like today if Mike and Marian Ilitch did not decide to move Little Caesar's office to the Fox building, restore the Fox and dedicate themselves to rebuilding downtown Detroit? Would Peter Karmonos, Dan Gilbert or anyone else have made the commitment to Detroit if Mike Ilitch didn't take that chance on Detorit first? Rest in peace Mike Ilitch. You were a great Detroiter.
Lifelong Detroiter and entrepreneur Michael Evans began a debate on Facebook after the death of Ilitch, saying that Ilitch completely 'fucked downtown Detroit for decades."
JoAnne Parker responded: So true Michael
But not everyone in the that thread agrees.
Kyle Grimm: Come on now. The guy created an empire. Decided to stay here. Employed lots of Detroiters. His historical preservation record was shit.
Michael Evans: Awwww, he decided to say here and make a bunch of money? What a sweetheart, truly.
Kyle Grimm: I know you are not a sportsball fan, but the majority of this metropolis will consider him an asset.
Michael Evans Truth! I'm less worried about his sports than I am about his impact on the infrastructure and character of the city.
Chuk Anyanetu: Pish posh. He put his money in the city. Detroit went from 1.8 mil in the 50s to under a mil by the time he started developing and restoring buildings. He planted a seed knowing it would take 30 years or more to improve the city. Is he bad for making money along the way? He could have moved his franchises to another city or done nothing. Dead or alive, name some Michigan billionaires that had a bigger impact on Michigan than he did.
Michael Evans: This is so spot on I can't tell if it's satire. "He planted a seed knowing it would take 30 years or more to improve the..." Yes that's exactly what they did. They said, "Oh gee, this part of the city might be worth something in 30 years so lets buy up all we can, let it rot, stop further possible development unless it goes through us and in the meantime setup parking lots. If anyone attacks us over it, offer the idea of some new development and never deliver on it.
Chuk Anyanetu: There is one Meijer in Detroit that just got here a few years ago and is on the border, the DeVoses are lowering the quality of public education in Detroit, Gilbert came after Mike and practically has a monopoly: downtown-take a Gilbert train to a Gilbert job, then eat at a Gilbert restaurant then pay a Gilbert mortgage for your Gilbert loft... You don't have to (love) Mike but at least acknowledge that he bet on the city when it was the laughing stock of the world, and without his investment most of us would not have been here or stayed here as long as we have.
A person named Adam, who asked that his last name not be used, wrote on the thread:
Look most of what you hate about Mike was not him. His wife and son have run Ilitch Holdings for around twenty years, and working for the Company as long as I did, Mike (has) been close to death for that long. He had his toys, The Tigers, and the Red Wings. All the criticism your throwing HIS way (is) unwarranted now...his family (is a) whole different story and THEY have things to answer for. Mike was not perfect by any means... He did a lot for the city. It's after he gave (away) most of control, shit went to hell. At one point the guy who ran The Restaurant Division... did not have a high school diploma. He could cook but had no business trying to run a business!. These were decisions made by his family...Celebrate the man you can vilify the family.
Adam then added this in a note to Deadline Detroit on Sunday morning:
I worked for. Olympia for over 10 years. I saw how things worked in that company. I interacted with many of the ilitches.
I like Mike. He was a nice guy. Mike Jr., cool, Atonis, he was a great guy, Ron was fun. But Marion, Denise and Chris were different and not in a good way.
Once Mike bought the Tigers he stepped away from the business to play with his toys. That's when the party was over as far as the Ilitches doing right by Detroit.
Former City Council member Sheila Murphy Cockrel said this on Facebook:
In the 1980s, Mike and Marian Ilitch and Mayor Coleman Young broke through the divisions in this region. They did so, in order to bring Little Ceasars downtown, build the Joe as the home of the Red Wing and restore the Fox Theater. At the time, many in the Detroit media were trumpeting a "last one out, turn off the lights” message about the city. The Ilitches ignored the naysayers and brought their pizza empire downtown. It was their bet on Detroit then, that in many ways, laid the foundation for the downtown resurgence we're witnessing now.
Thank you, Mr. I. Godspeed.