September 27, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Corktown residents battle train depot blight

The Michigan Central Depot has long been an attraction for tourists, artists and curious locals, as this sign posted by a guerrilla artist indicates. Neighborhood activists say the owner, Detroit International Bridge Co., has been slow to take part in the effort to revitalize the area. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

The Michigan Central Depot, Detroit's most famous ruin, is inspiring a uniquely Motor City-style example of economic development that generates hope -- and frustration -- in the people behind it.

The 18-floor abandoned train station, which closed in 1988, gained national attention for its decaying Beaux Arts design. Last year, the Detroit City Council ordered it torn down.

Instead, the depot has found new life as a production location for television shows and movies. It also has long been an attraction for artists, visiting media and even wedding parties who routinely pose in front of the massive blight. Its popularity prompted nearby businesses and residents to clean up and redevelop the area. They want to eliminate eyesores and show tourists the Corktown neighborhood has more to offer than blight.

But they are frustrated by the lack of cleanup help from Manuel "Matty" Moroun, owner of the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns the depot.

The cleanup controversy reflects a strained relationship between Corktown and the bridge company, which says it contributes to the neighborhood in other ways.

Detroit government officials also have concerns about the conditions around the depot.

While the city is not now pursuing demolition of the former train station, "we are trying to get the owner to comply with property maintenance codes such as pulling weeds and removing trash and debris from around the site," said Dan Lijana, a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

The bridge company declined to comment on the maintenance issue.

A focus of the anti-blight efforts is Roosevelt Park, next to the depot. A group of young entrepreneurs has raised more than $40,000 in corporate donations for the cleanup. Several have personally invested in trashy property next to the park and converted it to other uses. A digital media center known as the Imagination Station is planned.

Cash from film projects

Some neighborhood activists fear the bridge company doesn't want to spend money fixing up the area because the depot is generating cash from film projects, including the "Transformers" movie and the new television show "Detroit 1-8-7."

"They have to notice all the improvements going on right in front of them," said Mary Lorene Carter, who helped buy a couple of blighted neighborhood properties. "But, then again, it looks like they are making lots of money just by doing nothing."

A spokesman said the bridge company isn't profiting from the film productions.

"We're not charging to make money," said Phil Frame, communications director for the Detroit International Bridge Co. Production companies are asked to make a payment in the form of a contribution to a community group, he said.

Two film industry officials said the depot's owner charges more than $10,000 a day to shoot in the station. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the financial terms are confidential. Frame said the bridge company doesn't have a set price for filming and each situation is unique.

The neighborhood business owners and activists said they have tried to persuade Moroun to help in the anti-blight efforts.

"They once let us store some metal (in the depot)," said Phillip Cooley, 32, one of the founders and owners of Slows Bar BQ, who has spearheaded the corporate and community drive that cleaned up the park across from his Michigan Avenue eatery.

Cooley said he has kept officials from the bridge company updated on the Roosevelt Park improvements, which have been ongoing for two years. The company has been invited to play a role, but so far has declined.

"We hope for them to be a bigger participant in the future," Cooley said.

Frame did not respond directly to questions about possible future contributions to the cleanup, but said the bridge company is "very involved" in the neighborhood.

"We do a lot with community groups in the southwest Detroit area, especially Latino groups," Frame said.

Promise of lights

A business affiliated with the bridge company, however, seems to have taken an interest in the neighborhood's revival.

In August, Hybra Advance Technology co-founder Joe Thiel told a Corktown resident that his Traverse City firm would donate solar-powered lights to the Imagination Station and an art park. Hybra's executive offices and conference rooms are in the bridge company's Warren headquarters, according to Hybra's website and a bridge company official.

Hybra also is working on a project separate from the cleanup efforts to light up the train station, but Thiel declined to be more specific.

Hybra "has a great desire to be involved" with the cleanup efforts, Thiel said. "This is about creating innovation and a brighter future through LED lighting and green technology."

All-day fundraiser

Jeff DeBruyn, a partner in the Imagination Station project, said he is suspicious because he has had trouble reaching Thiel since their discussions in August. Still, he hopes Hybra will install the lights by Sunday, when Slows will mark its fifth anniversary by shutting the restaurant and hosting an all-day event in Roosevelt Park.

Proceeds will go to finance further park improvements. Cooley hopes to get enough corporate support to build a skateboard plaza and amphitheater.

ShoreBank Enterprise, Michigan Industrial Forklift, Home Depot and Daimler Financial Services already have made significant financial contributions to the park, and their employees have volunteered at the site.

"We once had this top (Daimler Financial) guy from Germany sweating and working" on installing the rows of Michigan plants in front of the train station, Cooley said.

Cooley's efforts helped inspire entrepreneurs DeBruyn, Carter and Jerry Paffendorf to buy a pair of blighted homes on the 14th Street side of the park, next to the empty Roosevelt Hotel. They bought the homes, one fire-damaged and the other looted, for $500 apiece.

One of the properties was razed. Through the use of the Internet, they have amassed a large group of volunteers and corporate aid to help turn the other property into the Imagination Station. The group enlisted the help of Pittsburgh Paints and Home Depot.

But the empty train station casts a shadow of uncertainty over the cleanup work.

Carter and Paffendorf said they are resigned to working without Moroun's aid.

"The only thing we can do is really to keep going and show people what is actually possible with a little creativity," Paffendorf said.

"And hopefully, you know, the owner of the biggest piece of property on the block actually acknowledges that."

From left, Jerry Paffendorf, Mary Lorene Carter and Jeff DeBruyn are ... (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)
Entrepreneurs want to create a digital media center in the home on the ... (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)
Lynette Lenn looks out at Michigan Central Depot from one of two houses ... (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)