Howes: Ford's play for train station to build Auto 2.0 campus would transform Corktown

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

As symbols go, nothing better projects Detroit’s decades-long decline than the Michigan Central Depot.

Built just before the opening of World War I, the gap-toothed hulk sat empty for the past 30 years, looming over Corktown and marring the city's narrative of reinvention. The neighborhood would be transformed by Ford Motor Co.’s plans to anchor its next-generation mobility, autonomy and electrification work in the 104-year-old train station acquired from the Moroun family’s Crown Enterprises Inc.

The sale, confirmed Monday by both sides, “reinforces that what’s happening in the city of Detroit is sustainable and will continue to happen,” said Cynthia Pasky, CEO of Detroit-based Strategic Staffing Solutions Inc., in an interview. And it’s poised to happen outside the bustling confines of downtown and Midtown, in what’s considered Detroit’s oldest neighborhood.

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This is huge. It answers emphatically demands for fresh investment in the city’s neighborhoods. It claims a place for Detroit in shaping the auto industry's second, tech-driven century. It aims to attract a new generation of tech-savvy millennials who tend to expect to live where they work, a precursor to badly needed growth.

The transformational upside is every bit as potent as Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert’s move eight years ago to move his team downtown. His opening gambit in an operating play for his family of companies morphed into a multibillion-dollar real estate binge continuing to revive Detroit's iconic buildings and its property values.

Ford's move into Corktown, however, would signal a migration of capital and jobs somewhere other than downtown and Midtown. It would be a linchpin in a Detroit-to-Ann Arbor corridor, with the state's largest city at one end and its most prestigious public university at the other — a rival to the I-75 corridor that helped make Oakland County the de facto business headquarters of southeast Michigan.

That's changing, quickly. After at least three decades of capital and jobs fleeing the city for the suburbs, the flow is reversing, attracted by the authenticity, energy and enthusiasm powering today's Detroit. Ford's arrival on the west edge of downtown, 22 years after bolting its Renaissance Center digs for Dearborn headquarters, would only strengthen a corridor that includes its hometown and a world-class airport with global reach.

The challenge for political leadership predisposed to seeing economic development as a zero-sum game is understanding that a futuristic business campus planted in and around a historic landmark would be a win for the region. That's the region whose jurisdictional lines tens of thousands of us traverse every day going to work and heading home again.

Ford's headquarters will remain in Dearborn, ranking officials insist. Renovation of its Dearborn campus will stay on track, including the rehab of storefronts along Michigan Avenue west of the Southfield Freeway. How many Ford employees could end up in a new Detroit campus, and how many of them would be all-new jobs at the Blue Oval, is yet to be known.

What's undeniable is that the region's biggest moguls, the people who know Detroit, its progress and its people best, are the ones betting billions on a simple proposition: the city is open for business, its reinvention is for real and the only way to shape it is being an integral part of it.

"It's huge news," Gerard Anderson, CEO of DTE Energy Co., said in an interview. "Michigan Avenue development has been humming, but now it's poised to explode." The abandoned station has "been the sign of decay and decline and now it's going to be the headquarters of the industry of the future. The symbolism is powerful."

The reality is, too. Resurgent interest in the city is presenting DTE with the kind of problem it hasn't seen in a long time: the number of customer accounts is growing, and the utility is seeing demand for new "substations we haven't seen in years," he added. "It's been a long time."

Thirty years, to be precise, since the last train departed the train station, headed for Chicago. Twenty-six years since the Morouns bought the station and sat on it, proffering meager redevelopment plans and grudgingly installing windows. Twenty-two years since Ford left the city of its founding, returning only last month with 200 employees of its Team Edison in what's called The Factory at the corner of Michigan and Rosa Parks Boulevard.

Last train out of Detroit's historic Central Depot: the 11:40 to Chicago, Jan. 5, 1988.


Ford's global brand cachet, synonymous with the Blue Oval of founder Henry Ford's time, "will be a green-light for money that is not friends and family" to invest in Detroit, predicted Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. "What the region suffered from, maybe up to now, is the Silver Bullet theory that one thing would transform the city or region."

How so? What the auto industry delivered Detroit for the best and worst of its first century, casino gaming would deliver starting in the late 1990s. What gaming couldn't deliver, Gilbert would, or Inc. would. But sustainable economic success requires many parents.

Detroit's more recent history is making possible investments like Ford's in Corktown, Gilbert's in downtown, and the Ilitch family's south of Midtown. The nation's largest municipal bankruptcy retired $7 billion in debt from the city's books, refinanced another $3 billion and produced collective bargaining agreements with all of the city's unions for the first time in a generation.

The result: Mayor Mike Duggan, City Council and their allies in business now possess a new foundation on which to build a new Detroit. They have an international riverfront, with redevelopment creeping westward toward the Morouns' Ambassador Bridge. There's rising demand for downtown office space, neighborhood business investment and residential space.

"It's going the other direction," Pasky of Strategic Staffing added. "Ten years ago, people complained that college grads wanted to live in Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. Now they want to live in Detroit. It's a different generation."

And, increasingly, a different Detroit.

(313) 222-2106

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.