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Sports and "pizza pizza" king Mike Ilitch dies at 87

Ilitch Holdings, LLC

Detroit sports and pizza franchise king Mike Ilitch has died at 87.

Ilitch was a huge force in Detroit business and development. But he started from scratch – a kid born to immigrant parents who started a pizzeria with his wife, Marian, in 1959.

Little Caesers eventually grew into what it says is the largest carry-out pizza franchise in the world.

Before starting the pizza venture, Ilitch played minor-league baseball for the Tigers’ farm team. Ilitch was passionate about sports, and in 1982 he bought the Detroit Red Wings – followed by the Tigers in 1992.

“Best in the business, no question,” says Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon. “He hires very good people, and he lets them do their jobs and he stays out of the limelight. That’s what they call in the Ilitch family privately ‘sports maturity.’ It’s not your job to high-five the players, or be in the dugout, or be at the press conferences. You hire the right people, you run it like a business.”

"It's not your job to high-five the players, or be in the dugout, or be at the press conferences. You hire the right people, you run it like a business."

And Bacon says, unlike a lot of team owners, Ilitch has never threatened to move his teams out of Detroit to leverage favorable terms for his franchises.

Never ever,” says Bacon. ”Not the last time around, not 15 years ago with Comerica [Park]. And most owners will at least hint at going to the suburbs, if not Jacksonville. So that’s been very good for Detroit as well."

But Ilitch also drew criticism for the kinds of sweetheart deals he’s scored – acquiring property for next to nothing, racking up tax incentives, negotiating tax bills down – culminating in his most recent, gargantuan deal to build a new hockey arena with at least $283 million in public money.

“The fictitious notion that it creates economic growth is just not true,” says Jerry Belanger, who owns the Park Bar – which is a stone’s throw from where the new stadium will be built. Belanger says he respects that Ilitch is a gifted businessman, but he says Ilitch has made a fortune at the expense of taxpayers.

Credit Ilitch Holdings, LLC
Ilitch Holdings, LLC
Rendering of the new Red Wings arena, expected to be completed in 2017.

But we’re supposed to thank them,” Belanger says. "That’s what you’ll hear. The mayor will get up, if they win the Stanley Cup, and say, ‘We want to thank you so much for winning a Stanley Cup’ in the stadium we built you, and having Beyonce and Jay-Z here, and taking all the dough, and leaving the city with nothing.”

Some of Ilitch’s critics are little gentler. Dan Austin runs the website historicdetroit.org. Austin has been critical of some Ilitch moves – most notably, the demolition of the historic Madison-Lennox hotel. But Austin praises Ilitch’s restoration of the Fox Theatre in the 1980s. He says it set the stage for all the preservation work in the city that followed years later.

Credit Thomas Hawk / flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM
flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM
Interior of the Fox Theatre, restored in the 1980s.

The Ilitches' greatest legacy for the city was not building a baseball stadium, or a hockey arena, or even  saving the Fox,” says Austin. “It’s really that when no one was stepping up to the plate in downtown Detroit, the Ilitch family did.”

The Ilitch family will still be a powerful force in the city, even after their patriarch’s death. Mike Ilitch is survived by his seven adult children, and his wife Marian – a savvy businesswoman who is expected to run the organization.

Ilitch died Friday at Detroit’s Harper Hospital. A statement put out by Ilitch Holdings called his life “a remarkable American success story.” It goes onto note that all his businesses headquartered in Metro Detroit “will continue to thrive under family ownership,” led by son Christopher Ilitch.

Ilitch’s family plans a private funeral service, with an “opportunity for members of the public to pay their respects” also being planned. 

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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