Striking out

For a city bleeding red ink, it would seem the perfect pitch: An offer that would save Detroit at least $200,000 this year.

Doing the pitching was Peter Comstock Riley, who, for nearly six years, has been trying to become a player at Tiger Stadium. The facility has been vacant since 1999, and almost from the moment of the last out at the historic ballpark, Riley’s company, Michigan & Trumbull LLC, has been working to make something happen at the site known as “The Corner.”

And for all that time, Riley — and all others attempting to put the stadium back into use — have done nothing but strike out. Finally, last month, Riley made the city an offer too sweet to refuse. Or so he thought.

He proposed providing maintenance and security at the stadium for one year at no cost to the city. Since the Tigers left that stadium at the end of the 1999 season for their new home at Comerica Park, the ball club, owned by Little Caesar’s pizza magnate Mike Ilitch, has maintained the facility and provided security at a cost of about $420,000 per year. The money came from a $2 million fund collected from a 90-cent per ticket surcharge while the old stadium was still in use. The money was earmarked to either provide for maintenance of the facility until a new use was found or, absent that, pay for the stadium’s demolition. Based on payments made to the Tigers since the stadium closed, the fund is almost gone.

The contract for performing that service was apparently never put out to bid. In fact, city officials have never been able to produce any contract spelling out details of the agreement with the Tigers.

Officials with Detroit’s Planning and Development Department, which is responsible for overseeing the stadium, did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story. The Detroit News reported earlier this month that the city spent $215,000 maintaining the stadium last year. However, according to city financial documents obtained by Metro Times, the city paid the Tigers $200,000 during the first five months of 2004 alone.

Whatever the figure, Riley’s offer provided the city an opportunity to save hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time when it is facing crippling budget deficits.

Riley, whose company previously had been rebuffed by the city when it attempted to bring a minor league baseball team to the stadium, made his newest offer earlier this year.

In his proposal, Riley made it clear that his group would assist the city in finding a developer interested in utilizing the property. “Working in cooperation with the Planning and Development Department, the Downtown Development Authority, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Michigan & Trumbull LLC will assist the City of Detroit in making the stadium site attractive to future developers.”

Why did the city turn down the deal?

Riley provided Metro Times with an e-mail purportedly sent him by Walter Watkins, chief development officer for the City of Detroit, on Feb. 1, 2005. It states:

“After careful consideration, we have decided that we cannot accept your offer. Several prospective developments are under consideration, and we feel we can provide the necessary maintenance and security in the interim. We continue to appreciate your interest in the Stadium and wish you all the very best.”

Being shunted aside on the basis that a potential developer is waiting in the wings is a scenario Riley has been through before.

In October 2001, in the waning days of then-Mayor Dennis Archer’s administration, a representative of the Planning Department told City Council that a credible developer with solid financial backing had been found.

“So we do have a developer,” council was assured. But the deal never materialized. Once Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick took over, the proposed developer, Nonrahs-Sinacola Stadium Redevelopment LLC, was literally shut out by the city when it was not allowed to enter the stadium to perform the necessary evaluations for the deal to move ahead.

As recently as 2003, officials were touting the site as the potential home for a so-called “big box” retailer such as Wal-Mart. Again, no deal has materialized.

A group of Corktown residents and business owners who began working with professional planners before the stadium became vacant originally thought such a development would be ideal for the site. After studying the issue, however, they determined that a mixed-use development — one that would save at least a portion of the old ballpark while providing housing, retail and entertainment facilities — offered the best potential for reusing the stadium.

None of the developers interested in pursuing that idea has been able to make any headway with the city. The prospects of that happening now seem more remote than ever.

In an e-mail Watkins sent Riley in January of this year, Watkins wrote that “while we continue to listen to a number of proposals we are not necessarily supportive of a rehab or partial demo and would consider projects that need full demolition.”

No firm plans, however, have yet been announced.

In the meantime, Riley continues striking out. He says that his offer of free maintenance and security for a year was made in the hopes that, with his foot in the door and the Tigers no longer holding keys to the place, his group would be able to work with potential developers to help make something happen at The Corner.

In addition, Riley, frustrated that he’s been able to make no deal with the city despite nearly six years of effort, says he also considered his deal to be a way of forcing the city to show where its interests really lie. He reasons that, if the city is willing to reject such an offer, it’s only real concern at this point is to keep making sure the Tigers continue getting a sweetheart deal.

He contends that the problem all along is that the politically powerful Ilitch, who also owns the Detroit Red Wings and the Fox Theatre, has been able to forestall any action at the old stadium so that his club can continue collecting the maintenance fee for as long as any money remains in the fund. Also, it’s in the interest of the Tigers that no other use of the facility, such as a minor league baseball team, is allowed.

Both the Tigers and the city have consistently denied that Ilitch’s clout affected decisions regarding the stadium.

Others, however, have been running into the same stone wall as Riley when it comes to trying to wrest control of the maintenance contract from the Tigers. In November 2004, Chesterfield-based Landscape Images submitted a proposal to provide security and maintenance at the site for $200,000 per year.

According to Bob Schultz, co-owner of the company, dealing with the city has “been like talking to a refrigerator. As soon as you mention Tiger Stadium, all you hear is that it’s a waste of your time.”

“How come this was never bid on?” Schultz asks. “How come when I ask about that, no one wants to talk about it?”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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