Nov 2, 2023 - News

Scoop: How a land deal by the Tigers' owners could fund their stadium renovation

The front entrance to Comerica Park with fans gathered outside.

The Tigers are planning upgrades at Comerica Park before next season. Photo: Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Money from the Tigers' owners, who want to buy public property downtown valued at $35 million, could be headed right back toward Comerica Park renovations, Axios Detroit has learned.

Why it matters: The Ilitch organization, which owns the Tigers and Red Wings, needs the property for its $1.5 billion District Detroit developments — a transformational project that city and county officials have publicly supported.

Driving the news: Richard Kaufman, a consultant working on the sale on behalf of Wayne County, tells Axios that active negotiations are underway with the Ilitches.

  • The properties they want to buy are owned by the Detroit/Wayne County Stadium Authority, an obscure public body that owns Comerica and Ford Field and leases them to the Tigers and Lions.
  • A major sticking point, Kaufman says, is how much of the proceeds the county will keep and how much the stadium authority will retain and could use toward renovations.
  • Allison Gabrys, a spokesperson for the Ilitches' development arm, tells Axios that the company does not comment on active deal negotiations.

Between the lines: Splitting the proceeds underscores how money from the sale would be divided between public and private interests.

  • Kaufman tells Axios that the county is amenable to the Ilitches' position that some proceeds go to Comerica given the stadium's history grounded in public-private partnerships.
  • The Tigers, which the family bought in 1992, recently teased future upgrades at Comerica — without detailing costs or funding sources.
Parcels shown just west of Comerica Park.
Four parcels next to Comerica Park that have been recently appraised. Wayne County is in negotiations to sell them to the owner of the Tigers. Photo: Adapted from public documents obtained by Axios

What they're saying: The county expects the sale price to close at the property's appraised value of about $35 million, Kaufman says.

  • "The question is how much of the sale price goes to the county and how much of the sale price is retained by the [stadium] authority to be used for the renovation of Comerica."

Zoom out: Several teams across Major League Baseball are building or renovating their stadiums, often with price tags in the hundreds of millions.

Flashback: Olympia Development, the Ilitch organization's development company, secured the option to acquire the Woodward properties in an agreement with the stadium authority last spring.

Context: The first building expected to break ground as part of the District Detroit plan is one of several properties being negotiated: an office tower at 2200 Woodward in front of Comerica.

  • Construction was to begin this summer but has been held up, Ilitch officials said in August, though they didn't give a reason.

What we're watching: Kaufman says the county is waiting for the Ilitches to respond to the county's offer, but he declined to disclose further details.

  • "We want to make sure our relationship stays cordial and friendly so the Tigers stay well beyond when they're legally required," he says.

The Tigers' public-private history

The Detroit Free Press' front page on Oct. 28, 1995, after Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and the city officially announced the new stadium. Clipping courtesy of Free Press archives

The relationship among the Tigers, local officials and tax dollars at Comerica goes back decades.

Flashback: The stadium authority's creation in the early 1990s came from efforts to keep the Tigers in Detroit by Mayor Coleman Young and Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara, per Free Press archives.

  • Officials were "scrambling" to plan a new stadium after the Tigers said they needed an updated ballpark to remain competitive, the paper wrote at the time.
  • The Tigers' last game at their old venue, Tiger Stadium, was in 1999.

Details: The city-county authority was created to assemble land and own the stadium. But the Tigers manage and operate the ballpark and nearby property thanks to a late 1990s concession agreement.

  • Kaufman, the county consultant working on the deal with the Ilitches, says the Tigers are legally required to stay in the city for another 10-15 years but have options to renew, per the agreement.

What they said: "Our bottom line from the beginning has been that we want to keep the Tigers in Detroit, and we know that they need a new stadium, and all of our other problems we have set aside, all of our concerns, in order to make that happen," Wayne County's McNamara said in 1991 after the agreement.

By the numbers: The Ilitch family paid $145 million of the $326 million it cost to build Comerica Park, which opened in 2000, Crain's Detroit reported. Public funding came from bonds paid through rental car and hotel taxes, among other sources.

  • The Ilitches have paid for repairs over the years and keep the revenue from the stadium.
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