Morouns could chart new path following death of patriarch

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The passing of billionaire Manuel "Matty" Moroun potentially could herald a new era for the prominent and controversial family that owns the Ambassador Bridge, a trucking company and swaths of property in Detroit.

In recent years, his only son, Matthew Moroun, officially has taken the reins of the logistics empire. He's the third-generation leader with a business legacy to uphold as well as reinvent amid a changing and civically minded business environment in Detroit.

"I think the son taking over the company is a fresh opportunity for the company to work more closely with the residents in the areas of his properties to find solutions that benefit both the residents and the company," said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor who specializes in urban issues. "Early steps suggest there may be an improving situation. It's too early to tell if that will hold true."

Matthew Moroun

Matthew Moroun's negotiations already have been at the forefront of Detroit's revitalization outside the downtown core. For $90 million, he agreed to sell Michigan Central Depot that had sat vacant and deteriorating for decades to Ford Motor Co. in 2018 as the anchor for the Dearborn automaker's future electric and self-driving campus in Corktown.

"Although my father and I believed in this building and Detroit, many others did not," Moroun said during a news conference on the sale, noting City Council in 2009 ordered the 1913-built station's demolition. "The depot’s redeveloped and revitalization would only be part of an enormous plan taking in much more than the depot itself. The developer had to be the owner and the user. 

"The future of the depot is assured. The next steward of the building is the right one for the future. The depot will become the next shining symbol of its future and success."

And last year, Moroun-owned Crown Enterprises Inc. sold more than 83 acres to the city of Detroit for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's assembly plant expansion on the east side, essentially making Moroun-controlled property parts of the city's two most consequential industrial developments of at least the past decade.

A message left with Crown Enterprises was not returned. But reports suggest the younger Moroun might be more conciliatory in his business dealings and negotiations. He has met several times with the mayor of Windsor, which his father had not.

"I grew up in a different time," Matthew Moroun told the Detroit Free Press in 2018. "I'm trying to be civic-minded. I'm trying to open dialogue instead of fighting at every turn."

His father, who died Sunday of congestive heart failure, did business a different way. He had a reputation for leveraging political influence, for waging firm-fisted public relations campaigns, for using the courts on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border to to achieve business ends. The elder Moroun was so unafraid of court battles that one of them landed him in jail for 30 hours in 2012 for contempt of court.

"One of the strengths of Detroit is the powerful Detroiters who care for it," said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan's Ross Business School. "It would be great for the Moroun family to join that circle."

Matthew Moroun, who grew up in Grosse Pointe Shores and private schools, has signaled to lawmakers and bureaucrats a willingness to compromise and address boarded-up vacant properties in the city. In 2015, Michigan Central Depot got new windows.

"I think there is a glimmer of hope in that there is more concern for how the family is viewed," Gordon said. "Whether that PR concern will turn into more of a civic-mindedness remains to be seen."

The Morouns acquired the historic train station in 1992 after it closed in 1988. Ideas from a nightclub to an aquarium were pitched for the building that had become a symbol of the city's decay, but it was the proposal by Ford that would bring 5,000 workers to the neighborhood and create a public space on the ground floor with shops and possibly a market that finally persuaded the Morouns to sell.

"Begrudgingly, but, appropriately," the younger Moroun said on  WJR-AM's Paul W. Smith show after the announcement of the sale, "it was time for us to get out of their way. They're going to be writing the first words of a new chapter, and that's their chapter to write."

Less than a year later, another automaker promised an additional 5,000 jobs for the city — this time, at the expanded site of Fiat Chrysler's Mack Avenue Engine Complex that it would transform into a Jeep assembly plant and at an updated plant next door. The automaker needed 215 acres for the expansion.

FCA gave the city 60 days to complete the acquisition. It did not quite make that deadline with Crown Enterprises one of the last holdouts. But eventually, the parties reached a deal in which the city agreed to pay $43.5 million and swap 117 acres for a parcel at 12141 Charlevoix. It was by far the most expensive with the other 132 acres obtained for $4.6 million.

"The transactions were extremely valuable business arrangements for the company," Mogk said. "While it was to the benefit of the public, it was also to the great benefit of the company to sell the train station to Ford Motor Company and the properties" for the assembly plant.

Matty Moroun also has left his son with the goal of building a bridge adjacent to the Ambassador as it faces wear and tear. Canada in 2017 issued a permit for the second span — a move that surprised industry observers accustomed to Canadian prickliness to many Moroun business ventures. It, however, would necessitate the eventual demolition of the original bridge.

"I will turn my attention more fully to another development we've been working on over the river," the younger Moroun said in 2018 after selling the train station.

The family, meanwhile, has objected to publicly funded plans to build the Gordie Howe International Bridge a few miles south of the iconic Ambassador Bridge. The Morouns argue there won't be enough traffic to support both border crossings. Despite their challenges and objections, the bridge is moving forward.

"The rationale for the bridge is that it will help expand trade and economic activity in the region," Mogk said. "You can understand why there was opposition because it will impact your bottom line.

"Nonetheless, it caused a considerable amount of energy and effort in order to hold that project. That was another initiative by the company that was not in the best public’s interest."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble