Detroit is making a long-awaited comeback and Locals 17 and 58 are essential players in its success, powering new developments including the Little Caesars Arena.
Photo credit: District Detroit  

IBEW members have been an integral part of the Motor City for more than 100 years, and now they’re part of its resurgence.

An artist’s rendering depicts part of the inside of the Little Caesar’s Arena.
Photo credit: District Detroit

Once a destination for music and good-paying jobs, Detroit had become more a symbol of urban blight than revitalization, careening from Motown to Murder City. Decades of flight to the suburbs and the decline of the domestic automotive industry left deep scars.

The Great Recession, which hit Michigan particularly hard, pushed the beleaguered city further down, culminating in the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in 2013. Windowless houses on long-neglected streets sold for less than the price of a new car.

But today, with bankruptcy in the rearview mirror, construction is booming and the city’s long-awaited renaissance seems to finally be here.

“Optimism has never been higher,” said Detroit Local 58 Business Manager Michael Richard. “It’s a good time to be in Detroit.”

At the heart of the revival is the District Detroit, a multibillion-dollar rebuilding of downtown Detroit encapsulating 50 blocks with six entertainment venues, residential and business space and, most notably, a new sports venue, the Little Caesars Arena, which will be home to the NHL’s Red Wings and the NBA’s Pistons. It will also include the largest residential development in more than 20 years.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Sixth District International Vice President David Ruhmkorff. “A lot of our guys were unemployed for years. This is a great comeback story for the city and for our members.”

With a price tag of nearly $900 million, the arena is employing up to 400 Local 58 members, with more working on other projects including a new business school, apartments and the headquarters of the company behind the project, the Little Caesars Global Resource Center.

Local 58 electricians at the arena, employed by Motor City Electric, are working on power supply and support systems within the facility, lighting, wireless and sound and communications. They’re also wiring signs inside the arena. Close to 20 members will be employed permanently.

“If you’re a skilled tradesperson, you’re working right now,” said Local 58 Business Representative Ric Preuss.

Construction began in 2014 and the arena will be finished by September, in time for the start of the 2017 NBA and NHL seasons. The headquarters and business school are expected to open in 2018. 

Excellence and Distinction

As members rebuild Detroit, they’re also leading the way with the Code of Excellence, the IBEW’s signature commitment to high-quality work and effective labor-management relationships. Detroit Local 17 members have all completed the utility training and Local 58 members are working under the Code – and getting the other trades on board, making the project one of the first in the country to have a Code of Distinction, a multi-trade pledge to provide the highest-level craftsmanship and professionalism.

“When you’ve got everybody moving in the same direction, it makes the job site more productive, and that’s a great marketing tool,” said International Representative John Bzdawka. “The other trades understand just as we do that you’re not just here for this job, you’re also looking forward to the next.”

Two other Code of Distinction projects are currently underway, including a residential project at Detroit’s Wayne State University.

Local 17 members have been making substantial upgrades to the area’s grid to accommodate the increased load on the system, building a new substation and installing underground and overhead power and fiber optic cables. They’re also working on a city-wide upgrade, which they’ll be responsible for maintaining, and line clearance tree trimming.

Additionally, Local 17 members, working for Motor City Electric as well as DTE Energy, Asplundh Construction and Energy Group, are working on an extension of Interstate 94, which cuts through downtown.

“This [District Detroit] project is one of many we’ve been working on to repower Detroit,” said Local 17 Business Manager Dean Bradley. “We’re happy to be a part of our city’s revitalization, just as we always have for the past 125 years.”

Local 17’s leadership of the Motor City’s electrical modernization includes the replacement of almost 70,000 street lights throughout the city’s almost 140 square miles, which was completed in 2016.

Powering the Next Chapter

The high-profile District Detroit project is bringing thousands of jobs back to the city, increasing membership for Local 58, which represents electrical, telecommunications, broadcast and manufacturing workers.

“It’s producing a lot of excitement with our members,” Preuss said. “A lot of them want to work on it because they know they’re building a legacy.”

While some members of Local 58 have been around long enough to remember construction of the historic Joe Louis Arena in 1979, predecessor to Little Caesars, others are cutting their teeth on the new landmark, part of an effort to get city residents back to work and ensure they’re among the beneficiaries of the new development.

“I am so lucky to have this be my first project,” said first-year apprentice and Detroit native Kanaan Pinkard. “I’m a sports fanatic too, so being able to build something like this, that’s part of Detroit’s history and that I can share with my family, it’s incredible.”

The District Detroit project requires that at least 51 percent of employees be local residents, which has spurred Local 58 to increase its outreach and recruitment for its apprenticeship program. Currently, nearly 15 percent of the local’s more than 500 apprentices are city residents who applied in part for the project, said Jennifer Mefford, director of business development for the IBEW Local 58 Southeastern Michigan NECA Labor Management Cooperation Committee.

Local 58 is part of the project’s $2.2 million investment in recruitment that included advertising and roughly 200 job fairs, one of which brought in second-year apprentice Voncaira Williams. She was working at a tool and die plant when she heard about the job fair and applied for Local 58’s apprenticeship.

“A lot of my excitement comes from my daughter’s excitement,” Williams said. “She loves seeing what I do and when we drive by the site, she points and says, ‘That’s mommy’s building.’”

A highly-publicized project, District Detroit has become an advertisement for the skilled trades. 

“More people are talking about the building trades as a career,” Richard said. “More and more, it’s becoming a part of policy discussions.”

Indeed, IBEW members and their contributions seem to be experiencing their own renaissance, says Ruhmkorff.

“This is a huge boost for our brothers and sisters and it’s well-deserved,” Ruhmkorff said. “These locals are a part of the city and their success is Detroit’s success.”