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Behind Detroit soccer club's campaign to revive Hamtramck stadium, community

Eighty years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt paid a visit to the city of Hamtramck, an enclave within the city of Detroit. There, the 32nd president cut the ribbon on a new sports stadium, one of the many construction projects being carried out across the country to help the United States dig out of the Great Depression.

Eight decades later, the Detroit City Football Club (DCFC), a minor league soccer team with one of the biggest followings in the country, is looking to turn Keyworth Stadium into its new home.

But the historic stadium is crumbling. It has fallen into disrepair as the city of Hamtramck and its public school system, both struggling financially, have been unable to keep up with the repairs needed.  

According to Detroit City FC co-owner Alex Wright, the first stage of renovations (improving the seating area, the field itself, crumbling cement, locker room renovations and more) has a price tag of about $750,000, and will accommodate about 6,000 fans.

This would be a considerable improvement over DCFC's current 3,500-seat home at Cass Tech High School, where the club played its first four seasons in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). During the middle of last season, DCFC had to start turning fans away, which Wright says is “bad for business.”  

Just how does a small soccer club in downtown Detroit, started by five friends who played pick-up soccer together, raise three quarters of a million dollars?

Enter the Michigan Invests Locally Exemption (MILE), which was launched by the state in 2013. MILE allows small businesses to raise funds by reaching out to Michigan residents to invest in their companies.

“If it wasn’t created for growing a minor league sports team, then it sure does work out well for us,” said Wright in an interview with Michigan Radio's Stateside. “We have the most passionate fans in the country. We call them supporters actually. It’s more than being a fan, it’s an identity.

"And what better way to tap into that passion than giving them a chance to not only help us grow as an organization, but also help this community of Hamtramck ... that is troubled, but at the same time, extremely diverse, extremely interesting and really passionate for soccer. We see it as a perfect fit.”  

The club says it’s the largest community-financed project in Michigan history. Thecampaign started with a minimum goal of $400,000, but when it came to a close on Feb. 15, it finished with a public investment of $741,250.

“What’s the most interesting thing about Hamtramck to us is all of those cultures – and we’re talking first generation immigration – Yemeni, Bangladeshi, Eastern European ... they have very little in common on the surface, but they all love soccer,” said Wright.

“So we tap into that, the fact that we already have thousands of folks coming downtown to see us, and we’re moving into the middle of a neighborhood with tens of thousands of folks that now have our stadium accessible. We think all of that bodes very well for our attendance and the game atmosphere which, is going to add a new multicultural feel.”

Detroit City FC is focusing on growing the club and its fan base, and a big part of that is Keyworth Stadium. But could the team outgrow its current status an amateur club and become a professional team someday?

Wright admits that it’s part of the plan, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

“The state of Michigan has come a long way when it comes to the sport of soccer,” said Wright. “We don’t take the idea of pro soccer coming to Detroit for granted. We don’t think this is our birthright. We think this is something we have to work for. We have to show a market for it. We have to build small.

"Just because it’s a giant city with a great media market, it’s not a slam dunk. It’s not an ‘if you build it, they will come,’ that’s not the case. We started small, made connections with our supporters, and they have really run with it in a way that supporting DCFC has become sort of like a tribal identity. And that’s sort of the secret to success in sports.”  

Listen to the full interview below to hear the more details about DCFC's plans for Keyworth Stadium, building the club, and the possibility of bringing pro soccer to the city of Detroit.  

*This post was last updated Feb. 17, 10:09 a.m.

Josh Hakala, a lifelong Michigander (East Lansing & Edwardsburg), comes to Michigan Radio after nearly two decades of working in a variety of fields within broadcasting and digital media.
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