Detroit— A Texas family doctor who offered $6 million for the Packard Plant has a few days to come up with the money or join the latest in a line of developers with failed plans for the iconic ruin.
Jill Van Horn came forward through a spokesman Monday, saying she and her unnamed investors plan to build modular homes and offices at the sprawling facility. She emerged the winner Friday of a last-minute bidding war for the plant through the Wayne County online tax foreclosure auction.
Van Horn’s spokesman, Davis Marshall, said Monday she wants to employ thousands of workers and make the Packard an “economic engine” for the east side. The homes would be shipped worldwide, but some could repopulate vacant Detroit neighborhoods, Marshall said.
He offered few specifics, saying more details would emerge in coming weeks. Wayne County officials want money soon. They spoke with Van Horn on Monday and said she needs to come up with a “significant down payment” within about 72 hours or the site would go to the next highest bidder.
“It certainly sounds like they are sincere and will have the ability to perform,” said Chief Deputy Treasurer David Szymanski.
A firm deadline should come in a day or so, Szymanski said. All other winners of the auction were required to pay by Monday.
Van Horn said she has unnamed local, Wall Street and international backers. But skepticism abounds, since plans have come and gone for the site since Packard left the plant in 1956 — and because anyone could have bought the plant at auction a month ago for the $1 million owed in back taxes.
“It doesn’t make sense … they could have bought it for substantially less,” said Jim Saros, who owns a real estate company in Grosse Pointe. “It’s a dangerous site you need to start disassembling … You better have some very, very deep pockets.”
Van Horn won the bidding war that emerged in the final hour of the tax foreclosure auction Friday when the price skyrocketed from $601,000 to her bid of $6,038,000. The next highest bid was $1,000 less. The county hasn’t identified the other bidders.
Szymanski said Van Horn indicated she has a significant portion of the money now but needs a few days to get the entire amount. Marshall said money isn’t an issue.
“She’s got great means and a great team,” Marshall said. “She is a person who gets things done.
“It seems like an excellent opportunity to turn things around.”
Marshall wouldn’t say how long Van Horn had been contemplating buying the facility or why she didn’t bid in September. He said her backers have significant development experience, and her Detroit partners told her “you’ve got to do this.”
Michigan has only a handful of modular home manufacturers, whose plants typically resemble large pole barns with assembly lines that add elements such as drywall and cabinets, said Sharon Crowe, of Parkhurst Homes in Oxford, a builder that buys modular homes. Most are made in Indiana and Pennsylvania, she said.
Van Horn doesn’t appear to have any real estate or manufacturing background. She recently moved to Ennis, Texas, a town of about 19,000 about 35 miles south of Dallas.
Ennis Mayor Russell Thomas said he knows of the family and was surprised to hear about her real-estate plans in Detroit. He said the area is a rural community where most people in town know each other and they don’t have any more millionaires “than any other town.”
If Van Horn can’t come up with the cash, Szymanski has said he could go with the second or third top bidders. The third dropped out at $2,002,000.
Fernando Palazuelo, a developer from Lima, Peru, wrote in an email to The Detroit News on Friday he bowed out of the Packard sale after a bid of $2 million.
As a part of the sale, the county will require the buyer to secure or demolish the property in six months or the county can seize the property back. Marshall said it’s too early to say how much of the plant they can save and how much would be demolished.
The plant had tenants until the late 1990s, when many were driven out in a dispute between the purported owner and the city of Detroit.
The facility went up for auction this fall after Chicago-area developer Bill Hults missed deadlines to pay taxes and acquire the facility. Hults had worked with Szymanski for months to craft a deal to acquire the property and convert it to a commercial and housing development.
Saros said if Van Horn’s bid is legitimate, it’s a good sign that out of state investors are interested in Detroit.
“It’s ironic,” Saros said. “In some of the worst times, some of the best things are happening.”