Ford arrives in Corktown as train station deal set for June

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. is quietly moving one of its teams into new Corktown digs Thursday, a prelude to an expected mid-June announcement that the Blue Oval will purchase the long-vacant Michigan Central Depot.

Muriel Payan, a member of Ford's Team Edison, at work in The Factory in Corktown.

Negotiations between Ford and the depot's owner, the real estate arm of the Moroun family's Central Transport International Inc., have accelerated in recent weeks as the landmark deal to buy the historic train station and assemble land for a surrounding urban campus take shape and move toward a deal, according to three sources familiar with the situation.

No deal is done, cautioned a source close to the discussions.

The business teams for autonomous technology and electrification are moving into the Corktown facility known as The Factory at Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard. Ford is also said to be interested in a block-long facility known as The Alchemy behind The Factory, as well as an abandoned book depository near the train station. The train station and surrounding campus would act as Ford's home base for next-generation mobility, electrification and autonomous vehicle development.

Samantha Hoyt and Jarret Zablocki, members of Ford's Team Edison, work in the new offices at The Factory in Corktown.

The Dearborn-based automaker is gearing up to navigate the industry's next tech-driven century, known as Auto 2.0, from the city where its founder set out 113 years ago to put the world on wheels. Ford is hoping that the Motor City's newfound revival-cred will help attract young talent with valuable skills in mobile technology, software development and cloud infrastructure.

That begins Thursday with about 200 employees from Ford's EV and AV business teams making the automaker's first foray into the historic Detroit neighborhood, taking up residence in a 45,000-square-foot former hosiery factory on Michigan Avenue.

"It's a mindset shift that helps us to think outside the box, but will also help us do things faster," said Samantha Hoyt, who joined Team Edison, Ford's EV team, in March as a cross-vehicle marketing and strategy manager.

Hoyt remembers when Ford left Detroit in 1998. That's when the Blue Oval vacated the Renaissance Center it had sold to General Motors Corp. two years earlier, retreating to its Glass House in Dearborn. Ford's campus there, known by some workers as a "cubicle farm," is slated to undergo a transformation of its own as the automaker embarks on a 10-year renovation of its suburban world headquarters and completes a $60 million mixed-use development in west Dearborn.

Ford employees meet in common area at the automaker's new Corktown office known as The Factory.

Ford's return to Detroit marks the first time all of the Detroit Three have had a presence in the Motor City in at least 30 years – a span that included the bankruptcies of Ford's two crosstown rivals, their reinvention as profit generators and a revival of their namesake town that would have been thought unthinkable in the depths of the Great Recession.

"This makes us think through the lives of our customers better," said Hoyt, a 48-year-old Royal Oak resident. "Being part of a more urban vs. suburban environment allows us to see how people use public transportation, how they walk, use Uber, talk on their phone and multitask as they're moving."

Ford wants to put itself at the center of a transportation "cloud" in the next decade, an undertaking that would require the automaker to connect vehicles, infrastructure and even pedestrians to an integrated communication grid.

Bryan Harding is a 25-year-old Boston native who joined Ford two years ago in a manufacturing role and moved to Team Edison in March. He says the new Corktown workspace is an "intriguing concept" for younger workers like himself.

"The building is this wonderful mesh of the old Detroit architecture and the new style and technology we need – everything is connected," he said. "With no real dedicated offices, there's not a place I can't walk into and be part of the conversation. Everyone is adding something."

Corktown strikes a sentimental chord with Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. His ancestors hailed from the county in Ireland for which Detroit's oldest neighborhood is named. 

“I’ve seen Detroit at its best, and I’ve seen it at its worst,” the Ford scion said in December when the company announced its purchase of The Factory. “We want to be part of it.”

For the last decade, the rebirth of Corktown has been defined by a decidedly hip retail community, ranging from hand-crafted cocktails to farm-to-table restaurants and funky independent retailers. Now Ford wants to crash the party and use that hipster cred to attract young technology workers who might otherwise work in Silicon Valley or other attractive tech centers.

Ford calls the move "more than just a relocation" in its statement announcing the Team Edison move. It says it's a "purpose driven, strategic decision." 

“Moving our teams to Corktown will further enhance our electric and autonomous vehicle
development,” said Sherif Marakby, Ford vice president, autonomous vehicles and
electrification. “It gives our teams the workspace they need to promote collaboration and big thinking, and an urban setting that delivers crucial insight for both programs.” 

The move is part of Ford's $11 billion global investment in electric vehicles, which Ford's executive vice president and president of global markets, Jim Farley, announced at the Detroit auto show as exhaust fumes from the original Mustang Bullitt still hung thick in the air over the crowd of reporters, executives and industry observers.

Ford is promising to launch 40 new electric vehicles by 2022, 16 of which will be full battery-electric vehicles – including an electric performance vehicle tentatively called the Mach 1. The rest will be hybrids, with the Blue Oval planning hybrid options for  nameplates like Mustang, F-150, Explorer, Escape and Bronco.

"We expect to grow our presence in Detroit and will share more details in the future,” the company said multiple times as talks to acquire the train station moved forward over the past two months. The Factory is only the beginning.

Staff Writer Louis Aguilar and Columnist Daniel Howes contributed.