DETROIT -- Little Caesars Arena, the new home of the Detroit Red Wings, officially opened Tuesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. But for the city, it's much more than a replacement for Joe Louis Arena.
Speaker after speaker mentioned that the arena also is the centerpiece of The District Detroit, a 50-block area that includes Fox Theater, Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers) and Ford Field (home of the Detroit Lions). When finished, the area will include hotels, housing and retail.
"People have asked me how I feel about this job being finished," said Chris Ilitch, president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc., which owns the Red Wings and Tigers. "I told them that we're not finished. We're just getting started."
With the Red Wings and Detroit Pistons moving into Little Caesars Arena, the city will have its four major-league teams playing within four blocks of each other. The Red Wings played at Joe Louis Arena, located about two miles south, near the Detroit River, since it opened on Dec. 12, 1979.
"Four years ago Detroit was on its back," Mayor Mike Duggan said. "We were bankrupt and a national embarrassment. Now we are the only city in the country to have all four of its teams playing within walking distance of one another."
Duggan pointed out that wouldn't be possible without the Ilitch family.
"Twenty years ago they were ready to break ground on the new stadium for the Tigers, and we had to ask them to wait a year and give up half of their site in order to bring the Lions back to Detroit," he said. "That was a huge sacrifice, but Mike and Marian Ilitch didn't hesitate to do what was best for the city.
"Now, two decades later, they have redesigned Little Caesars Arena to bring the Pistons back as well. That shows the dedication the Ilitch family has always had to Detroit."
Mike Ilitch, who purchased the Red Wings in 1982, died Feb. 10, and Chris has taken over day-to-day operations of the family businesses. Marian Ilitch, Mike's widow, attended the ceremonies Tuesday and was on stage with oversized scissors to help cut the purple ribbon. The dignitaries passed on the opportunity to use massive pizza cutters.
"I have to extend my deepest gratitude to two of Detroit's greatest champions: my parents," Chris Ilitch said. "If my dad were here today he'd be pumping his fists in celebration, because The District Detroit will create the vibrant community he wanted for the city he loved."
Pistons owner Tom Gores, who moved his team out of the renovated arena he owns, The Palace at Auburn Hills, also thanked the Ilitch family.
"I cannot tell you how much it means that you trusted me to be a part of this," he said. "You only get one chance in a lifetime to help transform a city like you are doing with all of this development.
"I genuinely don't know where Detroit would be without the Ilitch family."
Gov. Rick Snyder said he thinks Little Caesars Arena and The District Detroit can help heal a city that has been torn apart for decades.
"There have been great things happening in midtown and just as many great things happening downtown, but they have been isolated from one another," Snyder said. "Now we have The District Detroit linking them together, and the QLine (street car) moving people up and down Woodward [Avenue]." (Woodward runs along the east side of Little Caesars Arena and is one block west of Comerica Park. The QLine has stops at both buildings.)
In 2006, the city tore down a long-vacant office building that stood on the site that became Little Caesars Arena. Detroit City Council president Brenda Jones said she hopes the arena eventually will play the same role for the city that the tenants of that building did more than 40 years ago.
"That building had a long history, but people will always remember it as the Motown Records building," she said. "That company did great things for Detroit, and this could follow in those footsteps."