Howes: Ford depot move signals 'Detroit is open for business'

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit — Few things could more powerfully project the revitalization of Detroit than Ford Motor Co.’s resurrection of the Michigan Central Depot, a looming symbol of a city most of America long ago gave up for dead.

Except it’s still here, folks, punctuated Tuesday by a so-called "celebration" confirming Ford's purchase of the long-vacant station. Detroit's continuing reinvention is a testament to the grit, toughness and entrepreneurialism of Detroiters and a new generation of leaders willing to learn from the past instead of remaining captive to it.

More:Bold hopes and dreams define train station's future

The Blue Oval’s bid to revive the World War I-era train station and use it to anchor a Corktown campus devoted to next-generation mobility, autonomy and electrification is, no question, a big win for a city. This for a town eager to reshape the reality informing its narrative just a few short years after its historic bankruptcy.

King Moore, 11, of Detroit, takes a selfie with Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr., inside the train depot after Ford talks to reporters.

It’s also a win for a surrounding region that touts itself as the North American home to a reimagined auto industry driven by new technology to move an increasingly connected world. Any voices of division poised to revive their tiresome they-win, we-lose lament at Ford's news would be wise to drop it and to stay classy.

“I hope it’s time we can let the city versus suburbs thing go,” Mayor Mike Duggan said, effectively acknowledging simmering suburban anxiety that the flow of capital and jobs is reversing and heading back into the city. “When Detroit revives, it’s good for everyone.”

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More:A celebration, not an implosion, at Michigan Central Depot

He's right. Added Wayne County Executive Warren Evans: "Awesome. This is awesome for Detroit and Wayne County. Oakland County had it for awhile, and we're bringing it home. Detroit's coming back."

It's a process, not a destination. Don't doubt the implications of Ford's move here, expected to culminate in roughly 2022. The automaker plans to house as many as 5,000 jobs in Corktown, half of them directly employed by Ford. It aims to renovate the historic train station, making its lobby with nearly 55-foot ceilings a public space stocked with locally owned retail, coffee shops and restaurants.

That's just a beginning. If the vision advanced by Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. comes anywhere close to being realized — startups and tech partners burrowing into offices in a renovated station tower, traditional suppliers angling to tap the creative vibe, developers working with the Corktown community to shape a new version of itself — Detroit could have its own version of Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road.

Add the specter of infusing Michigan Avenue, Interstate 75 to the north and surrounding neighborhood streets with sensing technology to guide self-driving vehicles; to hone ride-sharing services and mobility apps; to creating a mobility corridor starting downtown, passing through Corktown and Ford's engineering center in Dearborn, and heading on to the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run and the research labs of the University of Michigan.

"This is phenomenal," Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert said, nodding to the event unspooling on stage. "This is almost like a dream that this is happening. When people get together and focus on something good, a lot of great things can happen."

He should know. In eight years since moving the headquarters of his mortgage lender and affiliated companies to Detroit from Livonia and other suburban locations, Gilbert and his team have spearheaded a real estate buying-and-renovation spree that has transformed downtown.

It inspired other developers and chief executives to join the excitement, sometimes at higher costs than staying in the suburbs. It set the predicate for investing in the city long before the successful end to its Chapter 9 bankruptcy. It demonstrated that one of America's Big Company towns, choking with bureaucracy, could make room for the kind of entrepreneurial innovators crowding into Auto 2.0, the next-century industry.

Right about now, more than a few of the people who came of age in the wake of the turbulent 1960s, witnessed the political power shifts of the 1970s and watched capital and jobs quicken their flight to the suburbs in the 1980s and '90s will pronounce Ford's train station play a failure before it starts.

They'll recall Henry Ford II building and opening the Renaissance Center in 1976, only to see Ford sell it a generation later to rival General Motors Corp. They'll pronounce Detroit's chances of becoming a functioning, desirable urban center for the 21st century about as likely as snow in July.

Ignore them. They're rooted in a past that does not preordain the future, no matter how hard they pound the metaphorical table. Their past (when they were in charge) is a mostly failed past that the current (and future) generation of leadership in politics, business and civic organizations smartly tries to avoid.

Times have changed. Failure, hitting bottom and lots of adversity can do that; so can new leaders smart enough to recognize the need for fundamental change and to seize the opportunity to deliver it — big. Think Gilbert. Think the Ilitch family's District Detroit. Think the Ford family returning the Lions to Detroit, and Ford beginning to execute a vision for Corktown.


"They're not doing it to do something acceptable," said Peter Cummings, executive chairman of The Platform, a developer with several projects underway across the city. "We're aspiring to do things great. Detroit is the great urban lab of America. You can do things here you can't do in other cities."

That's an asset to prize, not a liability to carry. Few understand that better than the people who've been here through the good times and bad, from everyday workers and the management class to the big-league owners and the Fords, industrial royalty whose family firm was founded in Detroit 115 years ago this month.

"Everything's changing," Bill Ford Jr. told the crowd assembled on the north side of the station. "From how we build our cars, what they run on, how we hail them. This company was born of disruption. The train station is a signal to the world that Detroit is open for business — for 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.