Prospective Detroit MLS expansion team owners share "grander vision"

DETROIT -- Wednesday’s press conference unveiling plans for an MLS expansion team in Detroit was held at the downtown offices of architecture firm Rossetti, the Detroit-based company which has constructed stadiums and arenas across the country. 

And so it came as little surprise when organizers rolled on a video of proposed stadium renderings at a specific downtown site.

As outlined, the 20,000-25,000-seat, in-ground soccer stadium would be the heart of a massive $1 billion sports and entertainment development that would include restaurants, hotels, and a commercial office tower. Matt Rossetti, the firm's president and CEO, is thinking big-picture when it comes to the development surrounding the stadium.

"This is a grander vision that we're looking for, one that is composing a sports and entertainment district,” said Rossetti, whose firm has built stadiums in use by five MLS teams (LA Galaxy, Chicago Fire, Real Salt Lake, Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls).

“Obviously, a Major League Soccer stadium will be a key anchor, but there's going to be multiple uses. … Sports and entertainment districts are clearly the wave of the future for urban stadiums and urban arenas because they offer so much more."

The proposed site belongs to the Wayne County local government and currently serves as home to a partially constructed jail complex which has been halted for several months after it went $100 million over budget in the wake of corruption charges. After pouring $150 million into the construction, Wayne County officials have already stated their intentions of resuming construction.

The MLS Detroit group, headed by Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, are hoping to change the minds of local officials. On the morning of the announcement, they met with Mayor Mike Duggan, as well as county and state representatives, in what is expected to be the first in a series of meetings aiming to resolve this issue of what to do with the jail site.

While county officials say that the most cost-effective way to resolve the unfinished jail is to finish it — the project has already run the county and its taxpayers $150 million — Gilbert believes a sports and entertainment complex should be what greets people along Interstate 375, a location he calls the “front door” to the city. The prospective MLS owners say it can do more positive things for what is a growing and thriving downtown. 

“A jail doesn’t pay property taxes. It doesn’t spur other development. [It] isn’t connected to other entertainment zone. [It] isn’t creating new jobs,” Gilbert said.

When asked what role taxpayers will play in this development plan, Matt Cullen, the CEO of Rock Ventures LLC, the company headed by Gilbert, said the bulk of the bill is expected to be handled with private money.

“If we get that site and we get all of this stuff right, I can assure you that we’re going to have something that is very successful,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “Of that I have no doubt. [However], all the work that needs to happen to get us there is going to be a long and interesting process. But if we get all that done right, this is going to be wildly successful.”

If the county will not sell the property and moves forward with construction of the jail, there was no indication that this was a dealbreaker for MLS expansion, but no one at the podium was talking about backup plans.

“If you have a Plan B, it really distracts from Plan A,” Gilbert said. “It makes you less likely to get Plan A done, so there really is no Plan B.”

With the tentative plan to have a Detroit team on the field by 2020, the clock is ticking.