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Why Is Detroit's City Council Giving Away Free Money To Billionaires?

Photo credit: Carlos Osorio/AP.

If you go to the Detroit Pistons’ website, you can buy season tickets for the 2017-18 season, their first in a brand-new arena named after a pizza company. The move to downtown Detroit, where they haven’t played since 1978, has sparked such interest that they’re ranked second among NBA teams for new season ticket holders, according to the Detroit News. The problem is that they don’t even have a lease yet, or a complete deal to modify the arena so it can be used for basketball.

Not to worry, though—the Detroit city council made owner Tom Gores’s life easier today, approving a brownfield tax incentive to the tune of nearly $20 million for the Pistons’ new $83 million practice facility. And that’s separate from the millions of dollars of public money being poured into the arena itself. The vote was a foregone conclusion, with only two council members voting no, continuing in the storied American tradition of municipalities and cowardly lawmakers rubber-stamping stadium deals that give away huge sums of money to incredibly wealthy owners.


Since the new arena was announced in 2013—initially just as a home for the Red Wings—the cost has ballooned from $450 million ($285 million publicly funded) to $862 million. Funding is projected to be 62% private and 38% public, though that could change again—there are always, of course, cost overruns. Further, according to the Detroit Free Press, the Downtown Detroit Development Authority (DDA), the public entity that technically owns the arena, is “expected to capture $726 million in school property tax revenue through 2051.”

Champions of tax increment financing (TIF) and stadium scams will tell you that this money isn’t coming from the general fund, that the taxes will be captured within the arena district to fund the project and its ancillary development. This makes it, they say, a win for residents and business owners alike. An arcane financing mechanism will help lift the city from the ashes!

But that’s all bullshit. Yes, the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPS) receives full funding from the state. But DPS cannot collect taxes in the arena district until the 30-year bonds—issued to help finance an arena for a man worth $3.3 billion and a family worth $6.6 billion—are paid off. We’re living in strange times, but I would like someone to please explain to me how it is remotely sensible for a city that filed for bankruptcy four years ago, and where the public schools have been overseen by a string of emergency financial managers, to foot the bill for a sports arena, especially considering the owners’ outright refusal to agree to a strict community-benefits agreement that would ensure a set percentage of permanent, non-construction jobs go to Detroiters.

When Raquel Castañeda-López, one of the two councilmembers who voted no today, asked Palace Sports & Entertainment (PS&E), the Pistons’ parent company, if they would allocate 50% of their internships to Detroiters, they responded in a memorandum, “PS&E is committed to providing opportunities for Detroit residents and, to that end, will engage with the City and DEGC [Detroit Economic Growth Corporation], as well as, private sector and non-governmental entities to publicize relevant job openings.”


Castañeda-López, who championed a failed ballot proposal for stricter community-benefits agreements back in 2015, is not opposed to the Pistons move. She welcomes it. She is just trying to get the best outcome for her constituents.

“If we’re going to have this much public financing we’re going to need to have more concrete outcomes for city residents: Jobs for Detroiters, schools, libraries, filling immediate needs,” she told Deadspin, while she was stuck in traffic en route to City Council this morning. “I want to see concrete percentages. I like solid commitments that you can measure as opposed to them saying We’re committed to hiring Detroiters.”

Photo credit: Paul Sancya/AP

The council vote today, like those that have been held in cities across the country (hi Atlanta!), was simply a formality. The Pistons rolled out their marketing plan—DETROIT BOUND, their website screams—and plastered some pictures on the side of a downtown building months ago. This was a slap in the face to residents who believe they have a say in the process through their elected City Council members. Owner Tom Gores got his $20 million tax incentive for a practice facility. This was all by design. Roll out the marketing, then vote.


“That’s just part of the strategy of the mayor’s office and developers,” Castañeda-López told Deadspin. “To build public image and public support prior to being finalized by city council because then you have serious public pressure.”

We like to bang this drum a lot around here, but what the hell is with municipalities rubber-stamping every public-financing deal for billionaires who should be paying for their own stadiums? From Miami to Detroit to Minneapolis, there are countless examples of why cities would be better off spending their money on schools, infrastructure, housing, the kind of development that measurably improves people’s lives. Rather than, say, more money for criminally underfunded public schools, though, the city of Detroit is getting 41 Red Wings games and 41 Pistons games a year, and a string of Kid Rock concerts, all for the low price of more than $300 million in public financing.


This is not to say that the Pistons shouldn’t move downtown. They should! The Palace, in nearby Auburn Hills where the Pistons have played since 1988, is a wonderful place to see a basketball game. But with the renewed interest in downtowns across the country, it makes sense—strictly from an urban-planning perspective—that they would play downtown. That doesn’t mean the city has to pay for it.

Citizen complaints about publicly-funded stadia are so persistent that they just fade into the general din, which is perhaps the most ludicrous thing of all: When the literature and economists and constituents say it’s a bad idea, why are we still having this discussion? Not only are the Red Wings and Pistons getting a boatload of public money, they’re straight-up spitting in the face of locals who just want a shot at a job interview after their tax dollars paid for nearly 40% of an arena. We’ll let you know when openings are up on the job board is what they’ll agree to. This is nothing new, but it’s nonetheless still insanely misguided policy. And yet, lawmakers keep saying yes.


But the Pistons and Red Wings aren’t done dipping into the public coffers yet. The city council still has to vote on an amendment for another $34.5 million in bonds for arena upgrades to make it suitable for basketball. That, like today’s vote, is expected to breeze right through without much pushback.

Things don’t have to be this way. Cities can say no to these modern-day robber barons. Castañeda-López has been one of the few voices of reason on Detroit’s city council, alongside Brenda Jones, who also voted no today, and she’s going to come out on the right side of history. It will take a groundswell of politicians to change behaviors and norms. But we cannot continue to pay for stadiums and arenas when they serve no public good. Just ask Richard Sherman.


And that can start in Detroit. The city council should reject this proposal to set yet more public money on fire when they vote on it later this month. Yes, the wheels are greased; sure, it’s only another $34.5 million tacked onto the $285 million. But the city needs to draw a line in the sand. St. Louis did it, and Detroit can too. Make Tom Gores and the Ilitch family pay for it.

Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @billbradley3. Know something he should? Drop a note at or DM him on Twitter for a way to securely contact him.

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