revised from the print edition
written by Kristi Evans
photography by Cody Ross ‘13 BFA
Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, opening Sept. 1, will be the new home of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons and one of the premier entertainment venues in the country. It has also been called a “pillar of urban renewal.” The arena is a prominent feature of The District Detroit, a development led by the Ilitch organization that will create 50 walkable blocks of businesses, parks, restaurants, bars and event destinations. The 1,400 Michiganders working around the clock to complete the Little Caesars project on time include Northern alumni Todd Ketola (’92 BS), Gabriella Garza (’16 BS) and Austen Harris (’12 BS).
“What the Ilitch family is doing with The District is a huge catalyst for the city’s revitalization,” said Ketola, a vice president at Barton Malow, the construction manager for the arena and surrounding buildings. “Detroit is booming with employment opportunities. There is a lot of anticipation building around Little Caesars Arena and a huge hype for the opening in September, with six back-to-back concerts by Kid Rock. That will start 10 days after we hand over the keys, which shows that the owners have a lot of confidence in what we and the subcontractors are doing.”
The project has some unique challenges. It was originally designed to host one professional franchise: the Detroit Red Wings. Ketola said the arena was 60 percent completed when it was announced that the Detroit Pistons would also play in the facility. Accommodating both hockey and basketball resulted in major changes, from playing surfaces to locker rooms to lighting to back-of-house support services and even the height of interior doorframes.
“Communication protocol changed with two team owners and we suddenly had two inspectors, the NHL and NBA, who each have specific requirements to meet,” Ketola said. “We had to work quickly with the Pistons’ group, design on the fly and immediately start construction. Despite the necessary changes in the plan the project completion date stayed the same; there was no schedule extension. It’s exciting that both the Red Wings and Pistons will compete in the facility and bring the Pistons back to Detroit.”
Ketola is no stranger to high-profile projects. He has been responsible for more than 25 major sporting venues including the 100th anniversary renovation of the Rose Bowl, the University of Notre Dame football stadium, the Big House at the University of Michigan, Breslin Center at Michigan State University and the Horseshoe at the Ohio State University. His company also recently finished the transformation of Daytona International Speedway and a new MLS soccer stadium in Orlando.
A Gwinn native, Ketola was an industrial technology major and an architectural design minor at NMU. He began working for Barton Malow immediately after graduation on two local projects: the University Center and Marquette General Hospital. Ketola credits NMU for putting his career on the fast track. At age 34, he was promoted to vice president in charge of higher education and sports business markets.
“I’m a big fan of NMU’s program,” he said. “It gave me the technical skills to hit the ground running, but the greatest impact from my NMU education was my development of people skills. The construction industry is all about people – clients, employees and subcontractors. NMU helped to carve my personality to deal with that effectively.”
Barton Malow has a very strong internship program, with more than 40 interns recruited annually. Ketola requested that an NMU intern be placed on the arena project and the honor went to Gabriella Garza, then a construction management major and Wildcat soccer player. She worked last summer with a project engineer to ensure the accuracy of technical and management documents generated for the evolving design while also writing requests for information (RFIs) and reviewing submittals.
“I gained invaluable experience in the field,” Garza said. “We had more than 40 people from three different companies on site. Our goal was to be integrative so you wouldn’t be able to tell who worked for which company. I was surrounded by professionals with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. My last week, I was fortunate to be involved in the topping off of the arena, which is when the last piece of structural steel is placed. It was great to be able to sign my name on that piece.”
Garza continued working for Barton Malow during the fall semester and was hired full time after her December graduation.
“Now I’m taking on more of an engineer role,” she said. “We’re bidding out space in the outbuildings near the arena. I’m also working more directly with subcontractors. There are lots of features with this arena that haven’t been used in other places. This is a huge deal for the city. Knowing I’ve been part of this as the starting point of my career is something I will never forget.”
One of the project’s distinctive features is the Via, a covered concourse surrounding the Little Caesars Arena bowl that will house offices, retail stores and dining options. Austen Harris is a project engineer for Detroit-based Ideal Contracting LLC, which partnered with Iron Workers Local 25 on the steel trusses that span the walkway. Each of the 65 rafters was individually shaped, with unique lengths ranging from 40-120 feet.
“They connect the arena to the outbuildings and there’s a clear covering between the trusses so light gets in,” Harris said. “It’s an atrium-type ceiling. You will feel like you’re walking outside, but it’s climate-controlled.
“Our employees are working all over the site, mainly on structural steel for the arena, outbuildings and parking garage. People have asked if I’ll bury something here or somehow leave a mark that I worked on this project. I tell them no because the structure itself is the mark you leave. The Red Wings are my favorite team, so it will be rewarding to see the end product.”
Two former hockey Wildcats may get a chance to take the ice in Little Caesars Arena. Goaltender Jared Coreau and forward Dominik Shine are both on the roster of the Wings’ AHL affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. Coreau returned to the team after a stint in the big league covering for the injured Jimmy Howard in Detroit. Shine signed an amateur contract in March for the remainder of the Griffins’ 2017 season. He will be a full contract player next season, but expressed hope for a shot at Wings camp this summer.