The Demolition of Pontiac Silverdome: A Symbol of Detroit’s Plight and Resiliency

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When the Detroit Lions played their opening NFL regular-season home game on October 6, 1975, legendary broadcaster Howard Cossel described the Pontiac Silverdome as “the most magnificent football stadium of its kind…the finest edifice of its type known to mankind.” It was hoped to symbolize the vibrancy and progress of the Michigan area known for its automobile industry at its peak. The 80,000-seat capacity indoor stadium with its state-of-the-art inflatable roof hosted the Detroit Lions and the Detroit Pistons. It also played host to Superbowl XVI, Wrestlemania III, four 1994 World Cup group matches, and concerts from famous artists such as Elvis, The Who, Madonna, and Led Zeppelin. Pope John Paul II officiated a mass attended by over 90,000 people in the stadium. However, by 2013, its demise is symbolic of Detroit’s plight. 

            Pontiac Silverdome was the biggest football stadium in the world at the time it was built. It is also famous for its Teflon-coated inflatable roof, and hence its nickname “Silverdome” was first coined in 1976. The awe-inspiring top has been a source of the stadium’s problems, however. The roof fell in the summer of 1976 following a fierce thunderstorm, and it failed again after a snowstorm in 1985, damaging the Piston’s parquet floor prompting the Pistons to look elsewhere for a venue by 1988. The Lions moved out in 2002 to Ford Field in downtown Detroit. Plans were in place for the Lions to move out in 1995 as the city government was using funds taken from parking fees, concessions, and luxury boxes to pay off the vast stadium debt instead of to the Lions.

            Aside from the collapsing roof, the playing conditions inside the Pontiac Silverdome are far from ideal.  The place was hot and stuffy when it was used in the height of summer during the 1994 World Cup. After the USA Men’s National Football team opened their account in the 1994 World Cup against Switzerland, Tom Dooley, the American captain, said, “It was the worst place I ever played.”  But that did not stop the operators from utilizing it for other events until 2013 when strong winds fatally damaged its roof. 

            Losing the Pistons and the Lions, the Silverdome’s anchor tenants meant it was expensive to maintain. The city of Pontiac put up the stadium for auction to get it off their books, and Greek-born Canadian real estate developer Andreas Apostolopoulos won the auction for just $583,000.  Apostolopoulos splashed $6 million to help revitalize the stadium.  The stadium had sporadic success in staging huge events until its demise by 2013. The owner decided to demolish the stadium owing to the mounting maintenance cost to sustain its functionality.  The decision to demolish the stadium is in close timing, with Detroit filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

            Detroit and its surrounding vicinity have been in decline by the time of the demolition. The collapse of the once-burgeoning auto industry led to job loss, race riots, and widespread poverty. The population is down to 700,000 from its peak of just under 2 million.  The unemployment rate is at 23%, the highest for a city of its size.

            Adamo Group won the contract to proceed with the demolition work. The procedure called for a controlled explosion to compromise the steel beams supporting the upper decks, and gravity will help crumble most of the upper structure down. Each vertical beam supporting the structure will host an explosive charge, which will break the beams upon detonation, causing the steel ring supporting the upper structure to fall to the ground. A separate team will take over the remainder of the demolition work using hydraulic excavators to be done in sections. Thousands of tons of structural steel and rebars were to be recycled. The whole process will take one year.

            The demolition work did not go through smoothly.  The first attempt to take down the structure failed, and it was reported that ten explosive charges failed to detonate because the wires were cut. It has not been made clear if the cut was intentional or accidental.  But a second attempt done a day and a half later successfully brought down the structure, enabling standard planned work to go through. The hopelessly decrepit building did not go down without a fight.

            The future of the site, situated at the intersection of I-75 and M-59, is a viable investment location, as presented by the Mayor of the City of Pontiac, Deirdre Westerman.   “The City of Pontiac is ready to work with any developers who want to optimize the potential of this property,” she added. A resurgence of investment has been streaming into the city, with Williams International and United Shore Mortgage having transferred their corporate headquarters into the city.  IT companies have also moved in utilizing the underused fiber-optic network in the area.

Reference: The Pontiac Silverdome: from dream arena to symbol of American decay | US sports | The Guardian


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