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Mike Zurek, Jennifer Rizzo, Tedd Thompson and Gary Szor: Building the Lions' Den

Mike Zurek, Jennifer Rizzo, Tedd Thompson and Gary Szor were part of the team that renovated the one million-square-foot Hudsons' warehouse portion of Detroit's new Ford Field.

The first Detroit Lions regular season victory during the 2002 season came in their second home game at Ford Field with a 26-21 victory over the New Orleans Saints. The Lions’ new home, however, was a winner from the first exhibition game played there against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Aug. 24. The Detroit News described Ford Field on that opening day as a “TajMahal-like facility.”

A group of Ferris State grads at the JM Olson Corporation has been instrumental in helping to transform the face of downtown Detroit by their work on the Lion’s new prowling grounds.

“A building well done is a positive contribution to a community, business or society at large,” says John M. Olson (B’64), who founded the general contractor/construction management firm that bears his name in 1970. JM Olson worked on converting the one-million square foot former Hudson’s warehouse into the portion of the field housing concessions, press boxes and luxury viewing suites, as well as retail and office space. The Lions’ move from the Pontiac Silverdome to Ford Field returns the team to their namesake city.

It also marks a shift in philosophy towards a sports facility being a year-round asset, rather than simply a place for home games and the occasional concert (although after Rolling Stones became the first major band to play there last fall, concertgoers gave the facility high marks, as well).

Retro Soul

Standing outside Ford Field the week after the Lions’ win over the Saints, Senior Project Engineer Gary Szor (T’85) and Project Superintendent Mike Zurek (T’86) talk about how they think that multi-use strategy can build upon the energy the Lions’ return to Detroit has generated.

“The renovated warehouse is really the heart and soul of the stadium. It was the major focal point for the whole project,” says Szor. “The trend in athletic facilities is to not make just a single-use facility.”

“You should have seen it down here on game day,” Zurek says. “It was one big street party. Add to that the attraction of Greektown just three blocks south and places like the Gem Theatre, which has been moved, restored, and is a great place to see a play, and you have the beginnings of a real resurgence downtown.”

Both Zurek and Szor agree that renovation is harder than building a new structure. The Hudson’s warehouse was built in 1920 and saw seven additions over the decades, creating huge challenges for engineers looking to update all of the building’s mechanicals while maintaining structural integrity.

“When you’re retrofitting, you really have to be thinking outside of the box,” Szor says.

For the Hudson’s warehouse renovation, they thought way outside the box. The warehouse was actually two separate structures. The seven-story atrium that now joins the twin brick buildings and soars above the stadium rose only after the middle section of each building was demolished.

Ford Field in Detroit

Detailing Detroit

The combination of large-scale project with close attention of detail showcases the different strengths of the JM Olson Corporation, which has tackled projects ranging from construction of the 460,000-square-foot iTek building in Dearborn (which went from conception to completion in just 16 months), to restoration of the historic Detroit Athletic Club.

“We like to say we get big-company results with small-company attention to detail,” says Tedd Thompson (T’91), director of business development. Thompson points out another JM Olson job involving a downtown Detroit landmark.

“We did a small [$5.5 million], but high-profile job installing the GM logos on top of the Renaissance Center, which, outside of the state capital, is probably the most visible building in Michigan,” Thompson says. “It was quite a challenge working 73 stories up when everything had to be helicoptered in. I was up on the roof more than once, strapped into special safety gear. Just looking over the edge was intimidating. I couldn’t imagine how challenging it must have been for the workers who had to hang from the building and install the structural steel.”

For the Ford Field job, Thompson brought a special, non-construction understanding to the project; he played cornerback for the Bulldogs for three years while earning his construction management degree. “I like to think we ‘laid the foundation’ for the teams that were real powerhouses from ’92 through ’97, when they ran off five straight league championships. I’ve gone from helping to build a football program to helping build Ford Field. How great is that?”

One of the similarities between JM Olson and Ferris State is the personal touch.

Jennifer Rizzo (B’96), marketing coordinator, echoes comments that all the Ferris grads working for JM Olson make when talking about their years at the University.

“I came to Ferris from Royal Oak, and I live in the metro Detroit area again now. I’m a city girl, but I enjoyed my time in Big Rapids,” she says. “I don’t think I could have gone to a larger university where you’re only a number. The class sizes were smaller, and I could go see my professors anytime. I liked that personal contact.”

Szor agrees.

“Ferris did a great job of giving me the basics,” he says. “Right when I came out of college I worked on a large project for Great Lakes Steel, which involved surveying. What I learned in surveying class

at Ferris State gave me the confidence and experience to do that job. I can’t tell you how often I relate back to the whole range of technical knowledge I learned during my Ferris education.”

Szor remained at Ford Field for several more weeks working on the close-out process. During that time the retail and office space began to fill up. The renovated building’s first tenant, NTH Consultants, has leased 15,000 square feet for its 70 employees, and it’s hoped that the remaining 335,000 square feet of office, retail and entertainment space, will be completely leased by spring of 2004.

The last of the construction details should be completed long before 2006 when Ford Field will be the site of the Superbowl—leaving plenty of time for the Lions to do their own rebuilding.