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The man who bought the Pontiac Silverdome for just over half a million dollars is the type of daredevil entrepreneur who could bring Detroit back from the dead—or not
Rrring-ring! "Who is this?"
Rrring-ring! "Wrong number!"
Most entrepreneurs would be delighted to discover that a business they acquired included a phone that didn't stop ringing. For Andreas Apostolopoulos, the thrill wore off fast. On Nov. 16, 2009, Apostolopoulos bought the mothballed Pontiac Silverdome for $583,000—about what a four-bedroom suburban house in a non-dying metropolitan area goes for—and soon after calls were flooding in from fans, well-wishers, amateur teams, vendors, promoters, and would-be concessionaires. The sports memories and dormant capitalistic aspirations of the entire Detroit region were flowing through a single line connected to the old beige phone on his desk. The voices, he says, were hungry and intense, and they got on his nerves.
Rrring-ring! "He's not here!"
Rrring-ring! "He's dead!"
The Silverdome is an 80,325-seat stadium plopped down as if from space on 127 cracked acres of asphalt in Pontiac, 30 miles north of Detroit's downtown. Pontiac taxpayers paid $55.7 million to build it in 1975, and in its glory years the dome hosted the Detroit Lions, Pope John Paul II, Elvis Presley, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Super Bowl XVI, and a storied wrestling match between Hulk Hogan and André the Giant.
Apostolopoulos first heard about the availability of the Silverdome while on vacation in his native Greece. One of his three sons saw an ad in the Toronto Star announcing that the stadium would be auctioned in three days. The city of Pontiac could no longer afford the facility's $1.5 million annual maintenance bill. Apostolopoulos cut his vacation short and raced home to Toronto. "I thought: Whatever it is, the land alone if I get it at the price I want it, it is worth the money," he says. "And even if inside I don't do anything else, even if I put some small teams of soccer to play, or some football, or some hockey—I said to myself, I sense big opportunity here."
Apostolopoulos, who had never seen the Silverdome in person, placed his bid by telephone from the office of Triple Properties, his Toronto real estate company. He was surprised when his lowball offer prevailed over two other would-be buyers, one of whom wanted to turn the Silverdome into a landfill. Immediately he made it clear to local media that he had no intention of flipping it. He was committed to Pontiac. Amid the region's decline, Apostolopoulos appeared to be a species rarely seen in Detroit and absolutely vital to its future: a bargain-hunter with big dreams.
As you drive north along I-75 from Detroit, the Silverdome's broad white arc appears on the horizon like a Teflon-coated meringue pie. For a time, its crosshatched canvas roof, kept aloft by 25 trailer-sized blowers, made it the largest indoor stadium in the U.S. The Detroit Lions last played there in 2002. A month after his phone bid, Apostolopoulos took possession of the property and was soon spending four days a week in Pontiac, staying at a nearby Marriott and working out of the Silverdome's executive offices.
Despite his purchase of a stadium, Apostolopoulos, 58, projects little vanity or self-regard. He's courtly and soft-spoken, and dresses in a subdued palette of black and gray. His only indulgence since buying the Silverdome was asking the facilities team to wire his office for cable, so he could watch the World Cup at his desk. The desk itself is covered with bank statements, a calculator, and columns of handwritten phone numbers and figures. It used to take dozens of employees to manage the dome. He's pared the number down to six.
Born in the Greek port of Kalamata, Apostolopoulos immigrated to Canada in 1969 with a suitcase, $50, and very little English. His first job was cutting up chickens in the back of a Toronto KFC. After a stint as a janitor, his entrepreneurial nature kicked in and he began soliciting his own janitorial clients, hiring former co-workers to help with the abundance of work. In 1978 he founded Olympic Plastics, a small factory making plastic bags, and soon was dallying in real estate; one of his first deals was the purchase of an empty parcel beside a General Motors plant that seemed poised to expand. He bought it with a partner for $1 million in 1988—and sold it to GM within a year for $3 million. His worldwide empire is now worth $800 million.
Soccer has always been Apostolopoulos' passion—as a boy he wound scraps of cloth into a makeshift ball and played in the streets—and his long-term plan for reviving the Silverdome revolves around the sport. He estimates he'll spend between $2 million and $3 million to stage and promote "Match of the Titans," a game between A.C. Milan and Panathinaikos F.C. scheduled for Aug. 6. Seventeen World Cup players will take the field. Apostolopoulos refuses to deal with ticket brokers and their convenience fees. "We can have our own Ticketmaster," he says. Tickets, sold on the Web and at the Silverdome box office, range from $29.95 to $150. If attendance is on par with "Domination in the Dome," an April monster truck rally that drew 24,000, Apostolopoulos says he'll cover his costs.
Over the next few years, Apostolopoulos hopes that a series of world-class exhibition games at the Silverdome could pave the way for a new Major League Soccer franchise. One significant problem is that the Silverdome is much too large for professional soccer. The new MLS model is Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., which holds just 25,000. So Apostolopoulos is considering slicing the stadium into two tiers—putting in a floor where the upper deck starts to create an MLS-sized facility with natural grass (the dome does let some sunlight through) and using the space beneath it for basketball, hockey, and concerts.
"Detroit has lacked someone with the combination of financial resources and a passion for soccer," says Roger Faulkner, who led Detroit's successful bid to host four World Cup games in 1994, and who Apostolopoulos has brought on as an adviser. "The Apostolopoulos family has both. That gives us the nucleus."
In the past, Apostolopoulos has specialized in renovating vacant industrial properties and filling them with tenants. He's confident he can transfer that skill to the business of filling stadium seats. "There are always a lot of surprises," he says. "I'm still learning." Apostolopoulos is taking the value-oriented approach that served him well in real estate and applying it to the more glamorous process of turning himself into a soccer mogul. "Most rich guys buy teams," says Silverdome spokesman John Mozena. "Andreas bought a stadium. Now he's looking for a team."
He'll have to stand in line. Portland, Vancouver, and Montreal already have deals for MLS expansion teams in 2011 and 2012. "There are discussions going on in many markets," says Will Kuhns, a spokesman for Major League Soccer. "Detroit has been among them."
In anticipation, Apostolopoulos is doing what he can to improve the Silverdome's ambience. Contractors have used more than 10,000 gallons of paint to brighten the place and 12 miles of cable to upgrade its infrastructure. New suede couches, still wrapped and tagged, wait outside the doors of 90 club-level suites. Plumbers have repaired pipes on more than 500 toilets and urinals, which froze, he says, when Pontiac was too destitute to heat the Silverdome during the winter. Apostolopoulos estimates that he's already spent $3 million on renovations; once the building is restored to his standards, he expects annual maintenance costs to rise to about $5 million a year. He's also banking on a rise in revenues, from $2 million in 2010 to $10 million next year.
Detroit has touted its recovery almost as long as it's been in crisis. Yet the Silverdome's second life could be part of a genuine rebound, albeit one that requires more than the usual qualifications about green shoots and fickle economies. At TechTown, a former auto plant now run as a small business incubator by Wayne State University, more than 150 startups have taken root inside a 12-block research park. The Russell Industrial Center, a 2.2 million square-foot former factory that sold for $1.5 million in 2002, now rents to about 160 artists and businesses. Detroit is the 11th-largest metro area by population, but a survey by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program ranks it ninth in total exports and fifth in export-related jobs.
Over the past 12 months the median home sale price rose from $6,500 to $9,900 in the city of Detroit, and from $56,000 to $79,225 throughout the region. Even the Silverdome's neighbors are showing signs of stirring. In one vibrant office park, dozens of Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) workers take a smoke break; nearby, Raleigh Studios has broken ground on an $80 million sound stage facility. Three thousand jobs are expected.
Still, 3 million sq. ft. of factory floor sit vacant at the Pontiac Assembly Center, where rusted steel signs designate reserved parking spaces for the Quality Operations Manager, Material Superintendent, and other obsolete jobs. The future of such ghostly spaces depends on Detroit's ability to attract outside investment. The price of property is becoming an attraction for patient investors, says A.J. Weiner, a senior vice-president at Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL). "People are looking at these properties on a price-per-pound basis, not a return basis," says Weiner, who specializes in commercial leasing and sales. They're saying, 'I'm going to buy it cheap, for cash, on the strict value of the building or the land, at a tremendous discount. If the economy comes back I'll be able to fill it up or flip it.' "
Apostolopoulos maintains that he wants to fill, not flip, the Silverdome. He's endured some mishaps. In May an outside promoter cancelled a much-hyped series of soccer matches between national teams from Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, and Puerto Rico. In June another promoter's stage collapsed, injuring 11 workers and forcing the postponement of a concert featuring the Indian composer A.R. Rahman.
The Silverdome remains a powerful brand in Detroit, and a good piece of the value that Andreas acquired was the name. The current bookings reflect an omnivorous appetite for revenue. In the coming months the stadium will host a motorcycle rally, a home show, a Hollywood film shoot, and a medical marijuana expo. Apostolopoulos has been renting the field to outside promoters for as little as $20,000 a day. An electronic sign facing Route 59 is renting for $5,000 a week. The vast parking lot rents for drive-in movies, pop-up auto dealerships, keyless car-lock demos, and truck driving schools. Business may not be booming, but there is business. And fortunately for Apostolopoulos, the main phone line doesn't ring on his desk anymore. In fact, the old phone has been put away in a box of Silverdome relics, and when he answers his new one, he no longer claims to be dead.