Howes: Ford scion driving Blue Oval bid for train depot

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

More than a generation ago, Ford Motor Co. sold the Renaissance Center to its crosstown rival for $70 million and effectively left town.

Bill Ford, Jr. talks with the media next to the 2019 Ford Ranger during the unveiling at the Ford display at the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in Detroit in January.

Now the Dearborn automaker is poised to double down on its recent return to the west side of downtown in a potential acquisition of the Michigan Central Depot. It would be a blockbuster deal that could transform Corktown, the city’s oldest neighborhood, and burnish Ford’s role in the city’s revival.

What’s changed in 22 years? Everything — starting with the accelerating revitalization of the city America gave up for dead. That reality also is reshaping the kind of company Ford thinks it should be to attract the millennial talent it needs to help the Blue Oval chart its way in the tech-driven Auto 2.0.

How and whether Ford strikes a deal with the Moroun family, whose Warren-based Central Transport International Inc. owns the train station, remains to be seen. But Ford and its executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr., are not shy about their interest in Corktown, coincidentally named after the ancestral Irish home of the Ford family.

More: Ford in talks to buy Michigan Central Depot

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In December, the automaker announced the opening of The Factory at 1907 Michigan Ave. The century-old brick building at the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard will house Ford’s Team Edison, the automaker’s autonomous and electric groups.

Driving Ford’s move deeper into Corktown is the guy whose name is on the building. Having played key roles in the building of Ford Field and renovations to portions of the Rouge complex in Dearborn, Bill Ford is eyeing Corktown as a critical part of next-generation revitalization to Ford workspace in Dearborn and, now, Detroit.

Nothing is bigger in Corktown than the train station, a 504,588-square-foot behemoth with an 18-story office tower that opened in 1913 on 4.9 acres of land and closed in 1988. Since then, it has loomed like a toothless hulk over the city, a symbol of decline, industrial ruin and the difficulties of reviving Detroit’s most prominent icons.

A bid by Ford to redevelop the site and incorporate it into the automaker’s futuristic mobility, autonomy and electrification efforts would be a powerful signal of Detroit’s revitalization and Ford’s role in it. It also would underscore a return to the city where the company began assembling cars 114 years ago.

Ford’s likely move to acquire and redevelop the train station could answer a necessary requirement, officials say, for attracting next-generation talent interested in more than just working a job in the suburbs. It would be working for a company willing to reinvest in its past, to leverage its heritage to find a way forward, to impact its municipal environment instead of flee it.

It’s hard to overstate just how important Ford’s train station gambit would be. It would diversify Corktown’s business community, now already deep in bars, restaurants, two breweries and at least one distillery. It would take one of the city’s largest, most complicated projects and put it in the hands of a corporate owner with the cash and intent to redevelop it.

That’s the political equivalent at City Hall of manna from heaven. An infusion of taxpaying employees at a redeveloped train station theoretically would create more demand for services in the neighborhood; would improve property values; would extend downtown’s new-found vitality by attracting new investment to Corktown that otherwise might look elsewhere.

And more. By rooting itself in Corktown, Ford effectively claims the historic neighborhood for itself and avoids metaphoric belly-bumping with downtown’s three largest heavyweights: Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc. real estate empire, the Ilitch family north of downtown, and rival General Motors Co. at the RenCen, conceived in the early 1970s by Ford patriarch Henry Ford II.

No deal is done yet. But local developers have been told negotiators are working toward a May deadline, a timeline sources familiar with the situation do not dispute. And Ford, in a brief statement, signaled that its presence in Corktown “over time will grow.”

That wording is no accident. Ford, already deep into a billion-dollar renovation of its Dearborn campus and associated redevelopment in West Dearborn, is determined to expand its presence in Detroit’s Corktown. And with a Ford driving the process, the chances that it will become reality probably are pretty good.


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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.