Ford advancing talks for train depot amid speculation

Daniel Howes, Ian Thibodeau, and Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co.’s directors are expected this week to be told negotiations are continuing for the automaker to acquire the Michigan Central Depot, says a source close to the situation. No deal is done, and no announcement is planned in connection with Thursday’s annual shareholders meeting.

The Blue Oval’s talks are advancing with the depot’s owner, the real estate arm of the Moroun family’s Central Transport International Inc., to buy the historic train station and assemble land for a surrounding urban campus. It would anchor the Dearborn automaker’s next-generation mobility, electrification and autonomous vehicle development.

“We’ve been in discussions for months, so we aren’t going to talk about it until it’s done,” Mayor Mike Duggan told The Detroit News on Monday. “It’s something I’ve been working hard on for quite a while.”

Duggan’s confirmation of the high-level talks between Ford and the Moroun empire — and the city’s keen interest in them — is the latest public comment suggesting the negotiations are substantive and progressing. Last week, a cousin of Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr., Ford director Edsel B. Ford II, said:

“We’re pretty excited about it. A big redevelopment of southwest Detroit and that whole area would be great. It would be beneficial for the company to have all the electrification people together and all of the driverless car people together, and I think that’s what’s really driving it.”

That’s not all. Ford wants to reverse its exodus from Detroit, when the automaker founded in the city 113 years ago by Henry Ford sold its stake in the Renaissance Center and retreated to its Dearborn enclave. But the city has changed dramatically since the end of the Great Recession, and Ford has concluded that becoming part of the city’s reinvention is vital to reinventing itself for the industry’s tech-driven next century, dubbed Auto 2.0.

Ford is not only in talks to buy the former train station. Buoyed by the prospects of a major economic boost from such a large-scale corporate development in its oldest neighborhood, the city appears to be helping Ford gather data on parcels of nearby land — from rail easements to empty buildings and vacant lots — where Ford potentially could create its own campus, according to a city official close to the situation.

Ford declined comment Monday, referring to a previous statement that expressed excitement “about our return to Detroit this year beginning with our electric vehicle and autonomous vehicle teams relocating to the Factory in Corktown. We expect to grow our presence in Detroit and will share more details in the future.”

More than 200 members of Ford’s electrification team are expected to move into “The Factory” this month, marking the Blue Oval’s first meaningful business presence in Detroit in more than a generation. It would be a homecoming of sorts: the ancestors of this town’s industrial Fords hail from County Cork, Ireland, namesake of the neighborhood on the city’s west side.

A move to Corktown would complement the automaker’s renovation of its Dearborn facilities, including major redevelopment of tired storefronts along Michigan Avenue in West Dearborn into multi-story, mixed-use buildings. Ford officials say creation of a Detroit campus would not weaken the automaker’s presence in its hometown.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Land Bank Authority has been mapping rail easements behind the old Detroit train station to get better understanding of property lines and land ownership, according to a source in the department. The city’s land bank manages vacant and foreclosed properties and aims to find new uses for them.

Multiple sources told The News in March 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 envisions Ford either purchasing or occupying the abandoned book depository near the train station, one source with knowledge of the negotiations said.

Ford is also in discussions to buy an old brass factory at 2051 Rosa Parks Boulevard, a source with knowledge of the situation confirmed to The News last month. The larger of two parcels for “The Alchemy” is 2.75 acres; it includes a 87,000-square-foot building that sits directly south of Ford’s new “Factory” at 1907 Michigan.

The arrival of a corporate player with the stature of Ford likely would infuse new energy into the city’s oldest neighborhood. It would provide tax-paying jobs, increase property values and create new markets for local businesses even as it likely would drive prices higher.

It’s hard to overstate just how important Ford’s move could be, officials say, especially if it culminates in a re-imagined central train station. For 30 years, its dilapidated and, until recently, windowless facade loomed over Michigan Avenue, a symbol of Detroit’s industrial decline.