In the first couple days of Detroit, our Detroit Experience Factory tour guide briefly touched on the controversy surrounding the Ilitch family and the development of ‘District Detroit.’ District Detroit may become a vast and elaborate entertainment corridor in between Midtown and downtown Detroit, but more likely will just be a sad reminder of what could’ve been and a reminder of an unfulfilled promise. The Detroit News article “Ilitches’ Eddystone revival efforts get jump-start, but skepticism persists” explains how the multi-billion dollar Illitch family, who own Little Caesar’s Pizza, the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, are just now finally beginning to turn their attention to the promises they made to the city of Detroit. In 2013 former Congressman John Walsh championed a successful bill that set up the creation of District Detroit. The Ilitiches promised to deliver on an $864 million dollar investment into District Detroit, including 700 permanent residences and restaurants, all centered around Little Caesars Arena. Yet, the city would publicly subsidize this development by paying $300 million in taxpayer dollars to support it and the billion-dollar family spearheading it. Those $300 million dollars were directly cut from paying off debt for Detroit Public Schools, which rank among the worst in U.S. cities.
Today, the Ilitches’ deal feels even sourer for many Detroit residents because not a single residence has opened in District Detroit. The project for housing, and most notably the Eddystone Hotel is over a year behind schedule. The article explains that in May the city struck a deal with the Ilitches that offered the city some protection: a $33 million performance bond. This has been the first metric of performance that the city has laid out in the entire District Detroit deal, and it has not yet enforced any fines or tickets during the area’s “redevelopment.” After researching the entire District Detroit controversy, carefully scanning the abandoned midtown lots, and talking to Detroit locals, I have, ironically, come to the exact same conclusion that I made before even arriving in Detroit. In my application for Duke Engage Detroit I wrote that it appeared as if the residents of Detroit were not failing the city, but rather the city was failing the residents. District Detroit represented a beacon of hope in the midst of bankruptcy, yet It really was only a Hail Mary for a 3 mile stretch of Detroit, and a relatively unsuccessful hail Mary at that. Midtown and downtown have been exclusively the only part of Detroit receiving huge city funding like District Detroit, and although District Detroit appears to be more of a scam than anything, it still has contributed to the economic activity in downtown and midtown. Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park draw in pretty big crowds and lines form for the Q-Line, which again only connects the richest part of Detroit to the second richest part.
District Detroit represents everything wrong with the current development of Detroit. The area of the city with the least transportation problems and the least economic barriers are receiving all of the public attention, and most of all are depleting resources from the neighborhoods of Detroit. That $300 million for Detroit Public Schools could have supported the entire population of Detroit, rather than a disproportionately white and white group of Detroiters. On Saturday nights, white suburban Hockey watching fans come into District Detroit and hop in the Q Line as they shuttle off to bars and restaurants, while Detroit Public Schools in some of the toughest zip codes are quite literally falling apart. My friend Jon who grew up on Detroit’s Eastside called the Ilitches’ scammers and told me their involvement in Detroit makes it easy to understand why many Detroiters are skeptical of big corporations. He continued, “ Ford turned the city on itself." He explained how he believes Henry Ford made the city so reliant on cars as the only form of transportation, that now public transportation in Detroit is a joke. While all the money is generally poured into midtown and downtown, Jon told me he can see the gentrification of Detroit’s neighborhoods slowly spread up Woodward Ave into North End. The city is changing incredibly fast, and I can’t blame Detroiters like Jon who have a clear mistrust of city officials and wonder how all this change will affect blue-collar Americans. Controversies like District Detroit and sentiments like Jon’s make me that much prouder to be working for ProsperUS, which focuses all of its efforts on Detroit’s neighborhoods.