Ilitch may manage ailing Masonic
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Robert Snell / The Detroit News
DETROIT -- Mike Ilitch could soon expand his sports and entertainment empire to include operating the landmark Detroit Masonic Temple, which is broke and owes more than $226,000 in unpaid taxes and water bills and faces possible foreclosure early next year.
The huge Gothic-style building's owners are negotiating with Ilitch-owned Olympia Entertainment, and Masonic officials hope a deal can be signed later this month to book shows and concerts and manage the largest Masonic temple in the world. The building is included on state and national registers of historic places. The Masonic Temple Association would still own the building.
"It will absolutely, 100 percent never be for sale," association President Bill Betz said. "If the deal goes through, the bills will be paid -- immediately."
Negotiations between the temple and Olympia are continuing, and financial details are not yet public.
A deal would expand an Ilitch sports and entertainment empire and give it a bigger piece of the local concert and performance industry -- and help save an architectural gem. Ilitch, a pizza baron who along with wife Marian owns Little Caesars Pizza, the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings, has created a sprawling sports and entertainment district along Woodward, south of I-75, that includes Comerica Park, the Fox Theatre, Hockeytown Cafi and the potential site of a new Joe Louis Arena.
The deal also could generate enough cash for temple owners to pay off delinquent water and sewer bills and unpaid taxes dating to 2005 and keep open a building seen by some as a key to revitalizing the Midtown area.
"It's too important to lose. It's an anchor and such an important piece of real estate in that area," said Francis Grunow, executive director of Preservation Wayne, a historic preservation group.
Olympia and Masonic Temple officials have negotiated for about six months. "We have had talks with representatives of the Masonic Temple but nothing is imminent," Ilitch Holdings spokeswoman Karen Cullen said Monday.
Grunow said the deal makes sense for Ilitch, whose empire is headquartered at the Fox Theatre, about a half-mile southeast of the Masonic Temple, which is on Temple west of Woodward.
"They have a vested interest in that part of the city getting on its feet and thriving," Grunow said.
The disclosure comes one month after Olympia hired an entertainment and sports facility operations expert. Dana Warg, president of Olympia Entertainment, was a vice president with sports and entertainment promoter AEG and oversaw day-to-day booking and operations of venues that included the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The 14-story Masonic Temple opened in 1926 and was considered by some the region's entertainment epicenter. It has hosted a vast roster of rock stars and Broadway musicals, from the White Stripes to "Wicked" in either its 1,600-seat theater or the 4,400-seat Main Theatre, only slightly smaller than downtown's Fox Theatre, which has some 5,000 seats.
Business has plummeted in recent years as other Masonic organizations have relocated and the current management firm, Nederlander Detroit, has booked fewer plays, musicals and concerts -- about 50 a year, down from 120 several years ago, Betz said.
Masonic will split at the end of this year with Nederlander, which has long presented national touring shows at the temple and Fisher Theatre. Nederlander said in April it was leaving the temple to collaborate with the Detroit Opera House, saying the new location was a user-friendly facility with excellent parking and an "appealing neighborhood ambiance" -- all things the Masonic Temple has been accused of lacking.
One temple tenant, the Moslem Shrine Temple, bought the Southfield Centre for the Arts in 2003 and moved its 7,000 members out of the Masonic Temple. And the Scottish Rite, one of the largest groups of Masons based out of the temple, moved to Dearborn about 18 months ago, Betz said.
Temple owners have tried diversifying. "We have a lot of weddings, but there aren't enough Saturdays in the year," Betz said.
The temple also has suffered because of real and perceived dangers along the Cass Corridor, said Angus Stinson, vice president of the Masonic Temple Association.
The temple association's chief concern, short-term, is taxes.
The Masonic Temple Association owes $113,787 in property taxes for 2005 and 2006, according to the Wayne County Treasurer's office.
If the owners do not pay the 2005 taxes by March 2008, Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz said he will file a foreclosure petition in circuit court.
Temple owners also owe $112,512 in water and sewer bills, according to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.
Department officials are finalizing a payment plan with Masonic owners. "There have been meetings and efforts to get the situation resolved and that will continue because it is a historic site," department spokesman George Ellenwood said.
You can reach Robert Snell at (313) 222-2028 or [email protected]