MACKINAC ISLAND – Social justice has become a major point of discussion since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Platinum Equity Founder and CEO Tom Gores is no different than other business leaders who have pondered the issue over the last two years.
But when he decided to act, instead of going it alone, he sought guidance from those with personal stories of being slighted simply because of skin color.
Those discussions led Gores, who is owner of the Detroit Pistons, to establish a $20 million fund to build a new community center in Detroit
. The decision came after a recommendation from Pistons players and team officials, who conducted due diligence for months after Gores sought the organization’s input before the start of the 2021-22 season. The announcement occurred a few days after the two-year anniversary of Floyd’s death.
“I let them know that we wanted to do something, that I was not going to define it myself, but we were committed to do something to make more progress and do it fast,” Gores told NBC Sports broadcaster Mike Tirico
during a question-answer session at the Detroit Regional Chamber-sponsored Mackinac Policy Conference in early June.
“Obviously everybody was upset about (George Floyd), but true change comes from the ground. The players are (living on the ground), they've been hurt, and they've been through tough situations.”
Gores has pledged to work with the Detroit Parks & Recreation Department and residents to develop the new 25,000 square foot multi-use facility adjacent to historic Brennan Pool in the Cody Rouge neighborhood. The plan will also renovate the existing pool and locker room facilities and bring a diverse range of year-round programming to the neighborhood. The project is anticipated to be completed by the end of 2024.
“The facility itself will be the best of its kind and provide residents with a safe space to learn, play and grow,” Gores said. “But more than just a building, we will create a hub that brings together people from the neighborhood and throughout the city who want to make a difference in this community.”
A second phase of the plan will create an enclosed structure around one of the two Olympic-size pools located at the Brennan site, creating year-round access to swimming lessons and water safety classes to address an unmet need for Detroiters.
“When you look at a map of community center locations throughout the city of Detroit, we have known for a long time that there was a big hole in the Cody Rouge neighborhood,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said. “Now, thanks to Tom Gores and the Detroit Pistons, that hole is being filled and the residents of Cody Rouge will have a new first-class indoor facility providing a wide range of activity and engagement space.”
How the effort to help Cody Rouge neighborhood began
The initiative is the next step in a journey that officially began when Gores told Pistons players, coaches, front office personnel and other members of the organization that he was establishing the fund to help social justice efforts in Detroit.
“I’ll participate in helping the system and the process so it runs like a machine and every day someone is thinking about it,” Gores said during a Zoom call to the organization the night following Media Day activities in September. “We’re not going to be those people that just going to react to when something happens.
“Enough has happened that we should be reacting every single day.”
Gores decided to seek input from the entire organization during discussions with Pistons coach Dwane Casey, general manager Troy Weaver and vice chairman Arn Tellem. There were two guiding principles: the program should be additive rather than supporting existing community relations initiatives, and that its priorities be set by Pistons employees, players, coaches and staff.
The team worked with the players over several months to identify key areas of focus, which include education, mentorship, vocational services, life skills, financial literacy, emotional intelligence for youth, and food insecurity. The overarching theme was to help youths and their parents.
The players were swayed after visits to area facilities and community organizations. During the final meeting of the season in April, players unanimously decided that the most impactful impact would be to build a community center in an underserved Detroit neighborhood.
When growing up in Rochester, N.Y., Pistons center Isaiah Stewart played youth soccer and boxed before discovering basketball. He said community centers provided a vital role in his journey from childhood to adulthood.
“Community centers provided a safe space because after school I always had something to do,” Stewart said. “That led me to boxing, soccer, and eventually getting into basketball, but I was always busy. They can also give adults who work some peace of mind knowing their kids are in a safe environment, learning or getting better or just having fun.”
Finding Rouge Park
District 7, where Rouge Park is located, is the only Detroit district without an indoor community center. During a recent morning visit to the park, city residents walked the park’s four hiking trails. Brennan Pool, which opened in 1929, was easily located. There are two Olympic-sized swimming pools, which hosted the 1956 and 1960 U.S. Olympic swimming and diving trials and was included as part of Detroit’s proposal to host the 1968 Summer Olympic Games (eventually awarded to Mexico City).
The center will serve more than 24,000 with youths making up 35% of the area, according to data provided by the city. More than 60% of area residents are considered low income.
As Pistons officials explored options, Duggan and his team presented an investment plan to renovate eight existing centers. Duggan told WJR-AM that he gave Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem a personal tour of the park and he described a quick connection.
“They didn’t come in and say here’s what we’re doing,” Duggan told the radio station during an appearance at the conference. “They came to me and said what’s the most critical need in the city. When I took Arn out and showed him this beautiful pool and the fact that it isn’t used year-round, his eyes just lit up he said this is exactly what we want to do for the community.”
City officials and Pistons representatives and will host community meetings with District 7 residents to solicit neighborhood feedback on amenities and programming they would like to see incorporated into the new center. When work is completed, the site will become Detroit’s flagship community center with the idea it will be the most used indoor recreation center in the city.
Gores is planning on doing more as the announcement is the first in a series of initiatives Gores envisions for the Tom Gores Family Foundation. At the end of his Mackinac appearance, Gores revealed he will invest $100 million in creating a charitable organization.
"So, in the next several months, and I think probably by the end of the year, I want to create an organization that the community center is just the first of it," Gores said. “I'm really thinking about the future, and I feel like in our world, especially in our desire for social progress, we are controlled by crisis. While we're controlled by crisis, we don't pursue opportunity.
“Crisis can't cost us opportunity.”