Morouns tidy up before Detroit land vote
The big empty building in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, where a homeless man's body was found frozen six years ago, is boarded up now, the grounds securely fenced and relatively clean.
A few miles south, at the foot of the Ambassador Bridge, a fence that blocked off Jefferson Avenue for at least 14 years was quietly removed last month, ending a longstanding complaint by some nearby residents.
And since April, $156,687 in outstanding fines have been paid to clear up code violations on 42 properties throughout the city.
All are examples of how members of the billionaire Moroun family, owners of the Ambassador Bridge, are trying to clean up their properties — and image. It's in advance of a potential City Council vote Tuesday on a land deal they hope will lead to a second bridge across the Detroit River. The family wants to build the second span next to the existing one, and sink plans for a publicly owned bridge favored by the state and Canada.
The Morouns already control 550 acres spread throughout Detroit, but they need three more: an unused patch of city-owned waterfront property near the current bridge.
On Tuesday, the City Council may vote on whether to give the Morouns the riverfront property they want. The potential deal is more of a land swap.
The Morouns have agreed to give the city 4.8 acres to expand Riverside Park, a rather plain waterfront public space in southwest Detroit. As part of the deal, the Morouns would pay up to $5 million to build a baseball diamond, soccer field, picnic and fishing areas and a riverside promenade. The family also has promised to tear down a warehouse it owns adjacent to the park.
The Morouns want the land so badly that a member of the normally reclusive family and some company officials have been making public appearances to press their case. And they are sounding contrite.
"I know some of you have arguments with my family, with my company, about the past. I got to move forward or I will never get free from those," Matthew Moroun, president of the Detroit International Bridge Co., told a crowd of several hundred people during an event in southwest Detroit in late June.
"I'm asking you for your trust," said Moroun, son of Manuel "Matty" Moroun, patriarch of the business. His father remains out of the public eye.
There was a smattering of applause. But there are plenty of critics, too.
"Why are we even here considering this deal?" a tearful Rashida Tlaib, a former state representative who has often tangled with the Morouns, said at a recent council committee meeting. "This is a sham."
Mayor Mike Duggan announced the land deal in April, saying it would benefit both parties. Council members, however, are approaching any potential deal with caution.
Councilman Scott Benson said the bridge company has signed off on a letter that would require specific uses for taxes generated by any second span.
The dollars would go toward offsetting air pollution and improving road infrastructure in southwest Detroit. They also would help fund public amenities, public safety initiatives and sustainable citywide water payment plan.
"I want this letter to be bulletproof if at all possible," Benson said.
Benson said that he's not confident the land deal will be voted on Tuesday. A number of other council members have also raised a number of concerns, he said.
A recurring theme in the public debates is whether to trust the Morouns, who have waged a long, expensive battle to build a second, privately owned span next to the Ambassador Bridge.
Also frustrating their efforts are plans for a new publicly owned bridge further downriver.
The proposed Gordie Howe International Bridge, a joint project between the United States and Canada, appears to be on track for a 2020 opening. A second Ambassador Bridge span has yet to clear governmental hurdles in both the United States and Canada.
In Detroit, their track record in maintaining the acreage they already own generates much criticism.
"I would agree with you there is the perception, by some, that we are the most controversial business in Detroit, but, you know most of that is connected with Ambassador Bridge and then there is a pile-on effect," said Michael Samhat, president of Crown Enterprises, the real estate arm of the Moroun empire.
Samhat recently gave The News a tour of some properties owned by entities of the Moroun family. Most of it is empty land spread out through the city. Many of the parcels are near the Ambassador Bridge, the former Michigan Central Depot in Corktown and the area around the Detroit City Airport.
Some of the land just looks empty. On Fort Street near the bridge is a former Greyhound Bus terminal. The windows are boarded up and while it looks vacant, the building is being leased to a logistical center.
The core business of the Morouns are trucking terminals and warehouse logistics facilities. At least three of their properties have huge logistic facilities that serve automotive companies.
They have big plans for some of the properties. On the east side, Crown recently bought 40 acres near City Airport to build to a 400,000-square-foot automotive supplier facility. Crown purchased the land for $2.24 million. It is expected to create up to 250 jobs.
Much of the land, however, is empty and will likely stay that way for some time. There are 39 commercial/industrial structures on their properties; 28 are occupied.
One of those empty properties is the former train depot, the most famous symbol of decay in Detroit. The massive building was empty when the Morouns bought it. They say they will install 1,050 windows in the building, which has been vacant since 1988.
The Morouns have not found uses for some of their Corktown properties, despite the area's popularity among developers. Those properties include a former historic firehouse on 18th Street in a residential area and a huge former cold storage facility at Wabash and Bagley.
"We are always exploring options," Samhat said.
There is also the Roosevelt Warehouse, once used by Detroit Public Schools as a book repository, near the former train station. It's been empty for decades. In 2009, the building was so wide open that a homeless man was found dead at the bottom of a frozen elevator shaft.
"There's really nothing more to say about that situation that happened back then," Samhat said. "The best we can is show that area is secure, like much of our property."
Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.