Ford in talks to buy Michigan Central Depot

Ian Thibodeau and Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — Ford Motor Co. is exploring ways to become a major presence in Corktown, including possibly acquiring the Michigan Central Depot, The Detroit News has learned.

A deal to involve Ford in the historic Detroit neighborhood is being negotiated, multiple sources with knowledge of the situation said Monday. But a transaction is not imminent, two sources said.

The automaker has been looking into growing its presence in Corktown since it announced in December it would move its electric- and autonomous-vehicle teams to a renovated building near the old Tiger Stadium site.

The potential move to the long-vacant train station would simultaneously resurrect the most visible symbol of Detroit’s decline, and make the 114-year-old automaker a major player in the city’s rebirth.

Multiple sources told The Detroit News on Monday that the automaker has been negotiating to amass property around the train station, as well as buy the train station itself. Part of that move would be for Ford to either purchase or occupy the abandoned book depository near the train station, one source with knowledge of the negotiations said. An announcement is expected on the deal by May.

More: Timeline: Michigan Central Depot

The automaker would locate more future-focused segments of the business in the train station, such as data and analytics teams, or those working on electrification and autonomous vehicles. It already plans to move a 225-person “Team Edison” into a recently redeveloped warehouse in Corktown office space in May. The historic neighborhood has rebounded in the past decade to be one Detroit’s most desirable neighborhoods.

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. has publicly pushed the company’s interest in establishing a bigger presence in Corktown, formerly the center of Irish life in the city. The Ford family has roots in County Cork, Ireland, where founder Henry Ford’s father was born.

“I’ve seen Detroit at its best, and I’ve seen it at its worst,” Bill Ford said in December when the company announced it purchased its first property in Corktown. “We want to be part of it.”

Ford spokesman Said Deep said in an emailed statement Monday: “While we anticipate our presence over time will grow as our AV/EV teams begin moving downtown in May, we have nothing further to announce at this time.”

The automaker’s move to buy the building would underscore the Dearborn automaker’s investment in the city’s revival. That’s necessary to attracting next-generation talent.

The mouldering train depot has not stopped Corktown from flourishing over the past decade, and the historic building’s advanced state of decay has made it a frequently photographed tourist attraction.

“To be perfectly frank, I never thought that it was going to open again as a working building,” said Ryan Cooley, owner of O’Conner Real Estate and Development in Corktown. Cooley and his family have played a big role redeveloping Corktown’s main strip of Michigan Avenue.

“It’s hard to fathom what a functioning (train station) building would look like. It would depend on how many work there, or live there, or what other developments would be part of it,” Cooley said.

Ford’s move would diversify the area’s business community, now concentrated on bars, restaurants and small retail. And it would take a large, complicated project that so far has defied efforts at redevelopment and put it in the hands of a corporate owner eyeing it for a specific use.

A spokesman for Crown Enterprises, the real estate company for the Moroun family, which owns Michigan Central Depot, would not comment on any negotiations involving the train station. The former depot at 2011 W. 15th Street is a massive 504,588-square-foot, 18-story building that sits on 4.9 acres of land, according to CoStar Group, a commercial real estate information service.

A move from the Blue Oval to buy up land and buildings in Detroit signals an effort to attract a younger workforce as Ford and its competitors transition into an uncertain future of electrified and self-driving vehicles. The Corktown expansions would complement a 10-year renovation of its world headquarters in Dearborn, and a $60 million mixed-use development in west Dearborn.

As Detroit’s Big Three contend with tech companies on the east and west coasts for young engineers to build the cars of the future, experts say Detroit has to make an effort to build the city and region up as an attractive place to work and live.

That also means giving people from the region a reason to stay and work here. Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings’ metropolitan policy program, said: “It’s important to keep the two together. Having it all together is part of what makes a really powerful regional ecosystem. If more of that talent were to slip to California or other parts of the country, that’s not healthy.”

The train station opened in December 1913 and has been owned by the billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun since 1995. Through the years, there have been plans for renovation, but none have become reality. A 2001 proposal called for converting the massive building into an international trade and customs center. In 2003, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced a plan for it to become the new Detroit police headquarters.

In 2011, the Moroun family said they would hire crews to begin to remove the asbestos-laden caulking and glazing from the huge arched first-floor windows that provide a view to the once-elegant lobby with marble pillars.

In 2013, the Detroit City Council passed a resolution that ordered Moroun to destroy the landmark building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Morouns ignored the order.

The estimated cost to renovate the 18-story building is somewhere between $100 million to $300 million, Moroun officials have said in the past.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

Detroit News Staff Writer Nora Naughton contributed.