- The Washington Times - Friday, November 27, 2009

PONTIAC, Mich. | Talk about getting stuck with the cheap seats.

The Pontiac Silverdome, built three decades ago for $56 million, is virtually being given away — sold at auction for a paltry $583,000. That comes out to $7.25 a seat, a fire sale that has reduced the once-proud arena to another sad symbol of the Detroit area’s economic collapse.

Under the Silverdome’s air-inflated, cross-hatched silver roof, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley have played. So have the Detroit Lions and the Detroit Pistons. In 1987, Pope John Paul II drew more than 90,000 for a Mass there.

Now it’s an abandoned laughingstock.

“An 80,000-seat domed arena and its 127-acre site sold for less than a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan,” Jon Stewart marveled on “The Daily Show.” Not just any apartment, he said, but one “with a rodent problem, above a bowling alley and below another bowling alley.”

Mostly unused since the Lions moved to Detroit’s Ford Field in 2002, the dome has saddled Pontiac with a maintenance bill of $1.5 million a year. Drive-in movies were shown briefly in the parking lot, but plans to convert it to a casino, mall, minor-league baseball stadium or entertainment complex all have failed.

It’s a far cry from the glory days of the dome, once considered among the nation’s premier arenas. Super Bowl XVI was staged there in 1982, and Pink Floyd, Michael Jackson and Bob Seger all played under its puffy roof.

The buyer, Triple Properties Inc. of Toronto, has said it plans to use the site for a soccer arena. It is expected to close the deal within 45 days after a judge cleared the way for the sale this week — taking note of the region’s hard times.

Oakland County Circuit Judge Edward Sosnick said the stadium “represented hope for those who worked and lived and grew up in this area.”

“I am aware of the human agony in the community at large, and particularly in Pontiac,” he said. “We’re in this together.”

The dome would change hands at a price that represents just a quarter-cent on the dollar versus what it cost to build in 1975 — $220 million in today’s dollars.

In nearby Detroit, the most depressed major city in America, $583,000 is enough to buy dozens of single-family homes.

For years, Pontiac has been a laggard in Detroit’s prosperous northwestern suburbs. The city of 66,000 fell under state financial oversight in March after officials failed to balance its budget.

Many of the once well-paying jobs that supported the local economy have disappeared with the hard-hit U.S. auto industry. Pontiac once had about 20,000 General Motors workers, but plant closures have wiped out almost all of them. Pontiac had nearly 1,100 homes in foreclosure last month, according to RealtyTrac.

At the downtown Mill Street Grille at lunchtime Tuesday, retired city groundskeeper Leonard Smith and maintenance man Stephen Stockwell said the dome’s fire sale marks the end of a long string of failures by City Hall.

“They held out too long and got caught,” Mr. Stockwell said. “Once the economic crunch hit, they couldn’t get anything for it.”

Mr. Smith called it a shame. “Sometimes,” he said, “you just got to hang onto your assets.”

Fred Leeb, who was appointed by the state as Pontiac’s emergency financial manager, said the city was lucky to get anything.

“In fact, due to past difficulties in dealing with city administration, the depressed state of the local economy and high cost of demolition, three major real estate developers stated they would not take over the Silverdome even if it were provided to them at cost,” Mr. Leeb wrote in an affidavit to the judge.

Judge Sosnick temporarily blocked the stadium’s sale when a developer who had bid $20 million for the Silverdome with plans for a horse track and casino claimed he still had the rights to it.

The deal fell apart in a dispute over environmental cleanup costs and a missed payment, and Judge Sosnick ruled Monday that Silver Stallion Development Corp. was unlikely to prevail in its lawsuit.

For the people of Pontiac, the cheap sale is another disappointment at a time when the community could use good news.

“Every time you drive by that place, you feel sad. It’s empty. It’s dead,” said Sadeer Putrus, owner of Family Farm Market. He held out hope that something new might rise on the spot: “It’s better than nothing.”

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