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The Globe and Mail

Toronto developer acquires Pontiac Silverdome

The Pontiac Silverdome

Paul Sancya

Andreas Apostolopoulos didn't expect to actually win when he mailed in a low-ball bid for an abandoned 88,000-seat stadium in suburban Detroit.

After spotting an auction ad in the back of a newspaper only weeks ago, he decided to bid $583,000 (U.S.) for the Pontiac Silverdome, the former home of football's Detroit Lions. The president of Toronto-based Triple Properties Inc. put a $250,000 deposit in the mail, with only online documents from the auction house to guide him.

Then he forgot about it, content to manage his company's small portfolio of retail and industrial properties.

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"It was a bit surprising," Mr. Apostolopoulos said Monday after the sale was confirmed by a U.S. judge.

"There were really very few bids."

Mr. Apostolopoulos' bid, one of four, has earned attention across the United States for the extraordinary price: It values the stadium at about 1 per cent of the $55.7-million it cost to build in 1975.

The deal underscores the depth of the real estate collapse in economically depressed Detroit and the fiscal crisis facing cities across the United States.

High unemployment and business bankruptcies have devastated tax rolls in many municipalities, forcing them to sell assets at almost any price to reduce deficits and maintain services. Pontiac, a city about 50 kilometres north of Detroit, was desperate to offload the stadium, which has cost $1.5-million a year to maintain since the National Football League's Lions moved to a new downtown Detroit facility in 2002.

"The Silverdome will now be in the hands of professionals who can devote their time to transform this high-profile property into a vital asset instead of enabling it to continue to languish as an empty facility," said Fred Leeb, the city's emergency financial planner.

Just how it will be developed is unclear. Mr. Apostolopoulos doesn't want to talk about his plans for the stadium, which also includes 127 acres of land, other than to say that he would like to see a Major League Soccer team take up residence.

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But he hasn't actually spoken to anyone at MLS, and the league went a step further by saying it hasn't talked to anyone at all about the possibility of a Detroit area franchise.

"I am not really comfortable talking about what are plans are just yet," Mr. Apostolopoulos said. "It is just too soon."

In fairness, Mr. Apostolopoulos didn't expect his bid to be chosen. The 57-year-old doesn't have any experience managing large venues or sports facilities, but does see opportunities. He'll visit the stadium next week, his first real look at the facility.

"I've got all kinds of things in mind," he said yesterday as he began planning a trip to see his new stadium. "But I'm going to need a little time. There's a lot to do just now."

If his soccer plan doesn't come together, he hopes to pay for the stadium's upkeep by hosting concerts and large-scale events. In its heyday, the Silverdome set an indoor attendance record in 1987 when it hosted a mass by Pope John Paul II, beating its own previous record set the same year at WrestleMania III, which pitted Hulk Hogan against Andre The Giant. It also hosted the Super Bowl in 1982 and World Cup soccer matches in 1994.

"I'm not worried because I can carry the costs for a few years," he said, adding he'll finance the deal himself rather than seek a mortgage.

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Industry experts are skeptical of Mr. Apostolopoulos' ability to turn a profit at the site, let alone generate enough revenue to cover property taxes and maintenance. Only a handful of entertainers, such as U2 or the Rolling Stones, could fill such a large venue. It could prove difficult to entice a professional sports startup or major artists to an aging facility in the suburbs with the new Ford Field in downtown Detroit.

But because the city has promised to ease off on development restrictions, the site's value could lie in the land rather than the structure.

"I'm not saying this is a bad investment," said Rodney Fort, an economics professor at the University of Michigan.

"Lots of folks are wondering what he's up to, but when the economy turns around a bit and he's sitting on that property, then he's ready to rock and roll."

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