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"This guy bought the Silverdome?"

Nobody had heard of Andreas Apostolopoulos until he bought the Pontiac Silverdome. Can the Toronto resident save the stadium and its city with his dream of a professional soccer team?

The new owner of the Silverdome, Andreas Apostolopoulos (Photo: Greg Ruffing)

On a Saturday night earlier this year, nearly 7,000 people poured into the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., to watch a boxing match. The event was most notable for the venue itself. The Silverdome, a massive stadium about a half-hour north of Detroit, had sat empty for more than four years and had only reopened less than 12 months ago. Fight promoter Don King explained the significance to reporters a few days prior. “The Silverdome is what we call ‘the Resurrection,’ because the building was dead and we’re rolling away the stone and bringing it back alive,” he said.

By 10 o’clock, the ringside seats were bouncing with raucous fans. The event was staged at one end of the stadium, with the remaining three-quarters hidden behind giant blue curtains. As the boxers for the main bout were summoned to the ring, a pile of officials and hangers-on scrambled in to mill around for the cameras from HBO. King waved a couple of small American flags. But the man most responsible for the event, Andreas Apostolopoulos, looked lost and unsure of why exactly he was in the middle of a boxing ring. A short, stocky man with thinning white hair, he wandered around with his hands in his pockets. He’d been working in his office most of the night and likely would have stayed there if the stadium’s general manager hadn’t forced him out. Apostolopoulos, a 59-year-old real estate developer, owns the Silverdome. Born in Greece but a Toronto-resident for more than four decades, he had never heard of the 80,000-seat stadium until shortly before he bought it. Built in 1975 for US$55.7 million, the dome served as the home for both the Detroit Lions and the Detroit Pistons. It has hosted events ranging from the holy—mass performed by Pope John Paul II—to the hokey, such as WrestleMania III. As a source of civic pride for the roughly 66,000 residents of Pontiac, it was a kind of existential blow for the stadium to sit empty for so many years. Even worse, Pontiac was forced to auction off the Silverdome during the recession to avoid going bankrupt. Apostolopoulos scooped it up in November 2009 for just US$583,000—only 1% of the original cost. Residents viewed that as the final insult to a beaten-down city.

Apostolopoulos, however, has spent US$6 million to bring the stadium into working order and spends four days a week in Pontiac. His three sons handle his real estate company, Triple Properties, back in Toronto. Restoring the Silverdome and staging events has not been easy. Two failed lawsuits attempted to prevent the sale; the second one was thrown out of court only last month. The next few years look even harder. He plans to spend more than US$50 million to completely overhaul the Silverdome, and millions more to secure a soccer franchise to play there. The family has talked with Major League Soccer about the proposal, but it’s far from guaranteed. Apostolopoulos loves the sport, grew up playing it, and even owned a stake in a Greek club at one time. Whether Michigan shares his passion is debatable, and a recent effort to instil soccer fever by staging an exhibition match with European teams earned him yet another lawsuit.

Though he appears to be an unlikely saviour for Pontiac, he insists his plan can help a region gored by the financial crisis to recover. Maybe he’s embarking on a mad gambit, maybe he sees something in the Silverdome nobody else does. There are plenty of doubters, even in Pontiac. “If you look at the events that he has held and the attendance numbers, he’s clearly not making money,” says a city official who asked to remain anonymous. “I’m praying that he’s successful, but I’m scared shitless if he’s not.”

The boxing match that night was a success, at least. But every time the curtains dividing the Silverdome parted, the rows and rows of empty seats on the other side seemed like a bad omen.

From a distance, the Silverdome resembles a squashed cupcake. Its white curved roof sits on a base of drab concrete, surrounded by 130 acres of asphalt on the outskirts of Pontiac. Inside, Apostolopoulos works at a cluttered desk with no computer. “I don’t know how to use a computer,” he says through a thick Greek accent. He doesn’t carry a BlackBerry, either. “I would like to use it, but somebody has to teach me.”

Instead, he regularly shouts into his basic mobile phone, attending to stadium matters or his business in Toronto that manages industrial and commercial properties. He spends a lot of time talking to tenants. If, say, he hears one is in the market for office furniture, he’ll know a guy who can get a good price. This innate skill for pennypinching is something he instils in others. A tenant who couriers a late rent cheque will not be admonished for making a late payment but for wasting money on a courier. His work leaves him with little time for socializing, not that he has much desire for it. Since arriving in Pontiac, he’s been invited to various black-tie fundraisers and finds they make him uncomfortable. “I’m meeting big government people, big sports people, celebrities,” he says. “I didn’t like it.” Though polite, he does not particularly enjoy talking about himself, either. Two of his sons, Pete and Steve, sit on the leather couch in the office and fill in the gaps.

The family was never mentioned in the press before purchasing the Silverdome, despite owning 6.5 million square feet of real estate, mostly around Toronto. A rough valuation of their holdings puts their net worth at $805 million, a remarkable figure given Apostolopoulos’s modest air. (As the anonymous city official puts it, “He looks like he might own a couple gas stations.”)

The shockingly low price paid for the stadium earned him the attention of reporters who wanted to know how (and why) he did it. His answer amounted to this: he placed a bid, and he won. But the answer really has two parts. One has to do with a cash-strapped city, and the other with a hard-bargaining entrepreneur. “For him, it’s all about the art of the deal to get a good price,” Pete says. “But it’s also about taking what you get and making it a thousand times better.”

Long before the Silverdome was built, Apostolopoulos was growing up outside of the city of Kalamata in Greece. His parents were farmers, and money was tight. The second of five children, Apostolopoulos left school after fifth grade, and later trained to become an electrician. Opportunities in Greece were few, and so when his older sister later married and immigrated to Canada, he followed at age 16, arriving in Toronto without speaking a word of English.

A friend of his brother-in-law’s got him a job slicing up chickens at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. He later started his own officecleaning company, but when he became frustrated by the price of garbage bags, he sold it and opened a plastic-bag factory.

He was married by then, and later brought his three kids ( Jim, Pete and Steve) into the business, telling them they had three career options. They could be doctors, lawyers, or work for him. Jim, the eldest, earned a business degree and went to work with his father. Pete and Steve followed out of high school.

Apostolopoulos began dabbling in real estate and purchased property on the side. By 1990, he was making enough money through his portfolio of buildings that he sold the manufacturing business to focus on Triple Properties. His strategy has remained consistent: buy neglected buildings, fix them up if necessary, and fill them with tenants.

Perhaps that’s why he was intrigued when he learned about the Silverdome. The stadium housed the Detroit Lions for nearly 30 years, but the franchise paid the city of Pontiac US$26 million to break its contract and move to the newly constructed Ford Field in Detroit in 2002. The Silverdome floundered without a flagship tenant, and events petered out. The last one occurred in February 2006 when the venue served as the practice facility for the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Pontiac was grappling with a massive US$34-million deficit—roughly half its annual budget—that had grown through years of poor management.

In 2009, General Motors killed its Pontiac line of vehicles, which was named for the city, and then announced the closure of two local plants, putting more than 2,000 people out of work and costing the city a huge chunk of tax revenue. Property values plummeted during the recession, further imperiling municipal finances. The state of Michigan installed what’s called an emergency financial manager in Pontiac to stave off bankruptcy. The man chosen was Fred Leeb, a turnaround specialist from a wealthy enclave nearby. One of his first acts was to offload the Silverdome. It hadn’t been used in years, yet the city still paid US$1.5 million in annual maintenance fees.

Apostolopoulos’s son Jim noticed an ad for the Silverdome one day that fall while flipping through The Toronto Star and talking to his father on the phone, then vacationing in Greece. He casually remarked there was a stadium for sale somewhere outside of Detroit. Apostolopoulos cut his vacation short and rushed back to Toronto. He wasn’t sure where Pontiac was located, and with only two weeks left to submit bids, he had no time to visit. But he sensed an opportunity. The land had to be worth millions, he figured. If the stadium was in good shape, perhaps he could do something with it.

Apostolopoulos submitted a bid for US$500,000 that arrived two hours before deadline. “I figure out there’s not too many buyers for this place. You can steal it, or you can pay full price,” he says. “I’m not interested in paying full price.” An official involved with the sale later called Apostolopoulos. “He said, ‘Did you forget a couple of more zeros in the back?’” he recalls. “I said, ‘No, I put the zeroes in the front.’”

The bids were unsatisfactory, and the sale went to an open-outcry auction a few days later. Apostolopoulos, participating by phone, heard the auctioneer start the bidding at US$50 million. There was dead silence. He descended in increments of a million to yet more silence. Apostolopoulos grew frustrated at having his time wasted. “Five hundred!” he barked. The auctioneer told him they’d already received his initial offer, and continued with the bidding. “Five fifty!” he said. The auctioneer droned on, his pleas for millions unanswered. Finally, Apostolopoulos heard him say, “We’re going to give it to the last bidder. Sold to Andreas Apostolopoulos in Toronto.”

The residents of Pontiac were outraged. How could the city allow Leeb, an outsider, to sell the Silverdome for just half a million dollars? Leeb himself had budgeted for a US$6-million profit. What’s worse is that the city received multiple offers for it over the years—some the city rejected, other times the developers walked. “The city government screwed that up,” says Leon Jukowski, Pontiac’s mayor. “That was the heartbreak that went with the Silverdome sale. There was a strong feeling that we had taken a winning situation and turned it into a travesty.”

Leeb, always painted a villain, quit last year after a resident went on an anti-Semitic rant at a council meeting and branded him the son of Satan. In his resignation letter, Leeb wrote that he broke many myths in Pontiac, “the biggest of which was the value of the Silverdome and that it should be kept indefinitely, even though it had been sapping the lifeblood of the City for many years.” (A new EMF has since been appointed.)

Apostolopoulos saw the Silverdome for the first time in December, one day before the deal was slated to close. “I said it would be a shame to tear this building down,” he says. That message should put him in good stead with residents, but turning around a stadium is different from managing property, particularly when the city is scrutinizing his every move. One city official recalls meeting him for the first time, expecting to be greeted by a Donald Trump-esque mogul. When Apostolopoulos showed up at city hall in a cheap leather jacket that appeared to need cleaning, the official thought, “You just bought the Silverdome?”

Downtown Pontiac is deserted. The For Lease signs in empty storefronts are outnumbered only by those promising income-tax-return loans. The one place that’s bustling is the pawnshop. The owner, Ron Berger, takes an air conditioner for $30 from a guy who needs gas for his truck, and later steps outside for a cigar. The sidewalks were packed when he started here more than 20 years ago. “Now we’re the armpit of the county,” he says. Three years after the real estate market cratered, a home in Pontiac can still be bought for US$1,000. Berger takes a jaundiced eye toward the Silverdome, and like some others, believes it might ultimately have to be torn down.

Apostolopoulos has been doing a lot to convince them otherwise. The US$6 million he spent on renovations included 10,000 gallons of paint and nearly eight miles of wiring to install Wi-Fi. The Silverdome officially reopened in April last year with a monster truck show. More than 20,000 people attended, and the local press gave it favourable reviews. There have been a few hiccups since. The stage collapsed at a Bollywood- themed concert last year before it debuted, and the show was cancelled. Apostolopoulos sued the production company for US$750,000 in unpaid rent, more than he paid for the Silverdome. “The truth is, they’re having trouble booking that place,” an attorney for the production company sniped to the The Detroit News. “They stand to make more money with something like this.” The case is still before the courts.

Apostolopoulos disputes the accusation, saying he is swamped with pitches. The Silverdome holds a large event every few weeks, and various companies use the space in between. But the past year and a half since the Silverdome reopened has really been a trial run. Apostolopoulos has an extensive renovation in mind, one designed to make the stadium suitable for soccer. Major League Soccer, North America’s premier league, insists that its teams play in smaller, custom facilities to recreate the feel of European games. So Apostolopoulos proposes to split the Silverdome into two levels, remove the roof, and create an open-air soccer field on top. Beneath the pitch, the Silverdome will be halved, creating two venues for concerts, sports or trade shows. The renovation will be conducted in phases over the next few years for more than US$50 million.

But the key part of that plan—the soccer team—has yet to materialize, despite the family’s talks with MLS. The next team, the league’s 20th, will reside in New York sometime after 2012, and officials say they have no specific plans for further expansion. The league uses four criteria to assess new markets, and Detroit stumbles on the final requirement: it may not be a region with a healthy appetite for soccer. Even the mayor of Pontiac has doubts. “A lot of locals are saying, ‘Soccer? OK, but I ain’t going to no soccer game,’” Jukowski says.

These perceptions might be incorrect. Apostolopoulos’s events company, Triple Sports and Entertainment, organized an exhibition game in August 2010 between Italy’s AC Milan and Greek club Panathinaikos that drew a crowd of 30,000. (Apostolopoulos worked in his office through most of it.) This past June, 25,000 people also attended Ford Field in Detroit to watch a Gold Cup match between the U.S. and Canada. MLS is intrigued but not swayed. “Those events do provide a gauge, but those are one-off events, and they’re not necessarily a true indicator,” says Dan Courtemanche, senior vice-president of marketing and communications.

Despite the turnout for the exhibition game last August, Apostolopoulos’s entry into the world of professional soccer has not been smooth. Earlier this year, a subsidiary of the Creative Artists Agency, one of North America’s largest talent and sports agencies, sued Triple Sports and Entertainment. CAA represents both AC Milan and Panathinaikos, and Apostolopoulos was supposed to pay the agency US$1.75 million for securing the teams’ participation. According to CAA’s court filing, he’s holding out on US$258,665.34.

Triple Sports filed its own action against CAA claiming that it failed to adequately promote the event. The company had to pester CAA to get the teams to update their websites and confirm the event was taking place. CAA was also supposed to make star players, such as Ronaldinho, available for media interviews. But Ronaldinho suffered an injury and didn’t travel to Pontiac. Other star Milan players didn’t come either, and no one was available for interviews. As a result, Triple Sports lost out on refreshments, merchandise and ticket sales to the tune of more than US$1.7 million. The impression one gets from the claims, if true, is that no one aside from Triple Sports had much interest in soccer in Pontiac.

If Apostolopoulos does secure a team, it would be a coup for him and a boon for the city. That the Silverdome no longer weighs on the city’s finances has already improved its prospects, and there have been some benefits for the economy since Apostolopoulos’s arrival. Steve, his youngest son, likes to call the hotels when the Silverdome is putting on events. Typically, they’re full. Restaurants get a boost, too. “It has clearly been a help,” Jukowski says. “But it’s not the type of venue that provides the number of jobs or the tax revenue that is really going to pull the city out of its recession.”

The impact of Apostolopoulos’s investment may be more symbolic than economic. At the very least, it is a sign that someone has faith in Pontiac. The sources of the city’s pride and identity—manufacturing jobs, a name associated with American engineering— are gone, but the Silverdome remains. If Apostolopoulos wanted to call it quits, he could have done so long ago. He’s received and rejected multiple offers for it, including one for US$50 million. Cashing out isn’t his style. “He likes the process of growing something,” Pete says. “There’s no success in something if you don’t watch it grow.”

Apostolopoulos may have a new vantage point for that. He’s looking for a house in the Detroit suburbs so he can move out of the Marriott hotel room he stays in while in Pontiac. As always, price is on his mind. He went with a real estate agent to scout a luxurious abode earlier this year. Upon learning the seven-figure price, he remarked to the agent, “That’s more than I paid for the Silverdome.”