Train station deal sealed; Moroun family legacy still in play

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
The Moroun-owned Ambassador Bridge is seen from the Michigan Central Depot.

Widespread praise greeted the Moroun family’s sale of the long-empty Michigan Central Depot to Ford Motor Co. But the legacy of the company controlled by the reclusive billionaire family that owned the property for 23 years is far from sealed.

The derelict train station — which represents just a sliver of the family’s properties — played a large part in shaping the public image of the Manuel “Matty” Moroun and now his son, Matthew, heir to his father’s businesses. The historic depot, vacant since 1988, was just one of dozens of Moroun-owned properties in southwest Detroit over the years that residents have urged the family to not let sit idle.

Decades of legal clashes over the expansion of the Moroun-owned Ambassador Bridge, their ongoing multimillion-dollar effort to kill the Gordie Howe International Bridge, and their battles over properties in southwest neighborhoods have left many residents of the Corktown, Mexicantown, Delray and Hubbard-Richard neighborhoods skeptical that anything has changed. 

The Morouns’ hardball tactics were on bold display last week when they bought a commercial on Fox News, urging President Donald Trump to revoke a permit to build the publicly owned bridge while taking swipes at former President Obama and Canadians.

Jane Garcia, chairwoman of the board of the nonprofit Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development, or La Sed, admits she may be in the minority as a Moroun supporter. “It helped I never viewed the Morouns as the devil,” she said. 

Thousands of people attended Ford Motor Company's announcement about the Michigan Central Train Depot in Detroit on Tuesday.

The family’s bridge company has given considerable funds to La Sed over the years, Garcia said. The Morouns donated land for the construction of the Bagley Pedestrian Bridge, which crosses Interstate 75 to link Mexicantown.

A Moroun firm was a major funder for the $17 million heath facility known as the Community Health and Social Services (CHASS) Center, which treats the uninsured and under-insured. Detroit Cristo Rey High School and Forgotten Harvest are other beneficiaries. 

But property battles are what define the Morouns’ legacy for many — and may continue to do so long after Ford’s planned redevelopment of the train station is completed in four years. Residents point to empty properties owned by entities linked to the Morouns: vacant lots in residential neighborhoods, industrial buildings and former storefronts, even a fire station.

The huge train station was a tiny piece of the family business, which is primarily trucking and logistics firms throughout the U.S. and internationally. But the Morouns’ prize is the Ambassador Bridge, the largest trade crossing between the United States and Canada. The company wants to add a new span that the family says would pay for itself.

People gather in the grand hall of the Michigan Central Train Depot on Friday, June 22, 2108 as Ford Motor Company will be giving a tour of the station during an open house.

During the 2012 election, the Morouns spent an estimated $50 million on a state ballot proposal aimed at stopping — or at least delaying — construction of the publicly owned Gordie Howe International Bridge. That bridge will be built two miles downriver from the Ambassador. Such a bridge would break the family’s monopoly on tolls collected for all the trucks and passenger cars crossing overthe Detroit River.

The 2012 political effort failed, but the Morouns continue to fight the public bridge. On Wednesday, the Morouns’ Detroit International Bridge Co. bought a commercial on “Fox & Friends,” a favorite show of the president. The ad urges Trump to revoke a 2013 presidential permit, signed by President Obama, that allows Canada to build the new bridge.

“Please review that presidential permit. Then, revoke that presidential permit,” the narrator says as “America the Beautiful” plays. “Choose American. Thank you, sir.” 

The commercial is “misleading in numerous ways,” said Tim Fischer, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation, which backs the public U.S.-Canada bridge. The bridge will be jointly owned by Canada and Michigan. The steel will be from Canada and the U.S; the ad’s narrator says “Who knows who will make the steel?” 

‘We held strong’

The train station deal resulted in a rare press conference by Matthew Moroun two weeks ago. Matthew Moroun acknowledged that he and his father were often “quite alone” against critics over the fate of the vacant depot. 

“We held strong for many years,” Moroun told reporters near the razor-wire in front of the depot. The event was to announce the sale of the Word War I-era building to Ford, which envisions it as the anchor of a Corktown campus that will design the transportation of the future, including self-driving and electric cars

Matthew Moroun at Michigan Central Depot on June 11.

 “I thank my father for sharing his vision with me about this building and passing on his unwavering strength in standing by your belief even when the short-sighted conventional wisdom folks are hurling rocks,” the younger Moroun said. 

Representatives for the Morouns declined to comment further for this story.

Supporters say the deal with Ford represents an improved, more open image for the Morouns, particularly now that son Matthew is at the helm. 

“Matt Moroun is emerging as a real leader in this community,” Mayor Mike Duggan said at the family’s press conference.

In 2015, Duggan and Matthew Moroun begun discussing ways to soothe relations between Detroit and the family. The city and Moroun firms have had numerous legal clashes, and in 2009, the City Council ordered the family to demolish the eyesore that had become the towering symbol of the Detroit’s decades-long decline. They refused.

Duggan urged the Morouns to fix up the train depot. Windows were installed not long after, although the missing roof of the main concourse left the building open to the elements.

The two sides also struck a deal for a land swap near the Ambassador Bridge. The Morouns agreed to give some of their property for an expanded Riverside Park, along with $5 million to improve it. In exchange, the city gave the Morouns land they needed for their proposed second span.

History of battles

But some residents of southwest Detroit contend there have been too many battles for bad feelings to heal any time soon.

“I know they like to tout a change in leadership with the son now in charge, but this is a company with a long history of litigation ... and I think those habits die hard,” said Steve Tobocman. From 2003-08, the Democrat was state representative to southwest Detroit, ending his term as the majority floor leader.

Tobocman cited a federal court ruling earlier this month regarding the state of Michigan and a Moroun entity, Ammex, that operates a duty-free shop and gas station at the bridge. The judge ruled against the Moroun firm, which didn’t want to sell a summer-formula gasoline required by the state. The gas is meant to reduce emissions that increase smog in warmer months. 

Years ago, Tobocman helped start a group called Bridgewatch Detroit that he said kept an eye on concerns about Moroun properties. “There were fights about hazardous waste, their seizing of property,” Tobocman said. “All of these things have been a constant for many residents.”

Many in the area still bring up the eight-year battle over the Gateway Project. That was a plan to create an access road next to the bridge in order to get an estimated 10,000 trucks a day off southwest Detroit streets.

 The project was supposed to be a partnership between MDOT and the Detroit International Bridge Co. It became a years-long court fight — and the trucks kept rumbling through southwest Detroit after the bridge company refused to build its part of the project. At one point, Matty Moroun and another bridge company executive, Dan Stamper, were briefly jailed after refusing court orders. 

The land battles in southwest Detroit go back to at least the mid-1990s. That’s when Moroun entities began buying houses, only to let them sit empty, creating targets for arsonists and dope addicts, some residents contend.

Vince Murray, a former executive with an affordable-housing nonprofit called the Bagley Housing Association, dealt with Moroun representatives for years over properties in the Hubbard-Richard neighborhood in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge. 

“The biggest issue is they accumulate land, and there seems to be no strategic plan of what they want to do with it,” he said.

 As recently as few months ago, Murray said he met with Moroun executives and handed them a “whole list of properties” owned by Moroun firms. “We’d like some of that for housing, but who knows what they will do,” Murray said. 

“There’s always been concern that they would let this part of the neighborhood essentially go away and it would be one big trucking terminal that would serve the bridge,” he said. 

One local battle being fought now in the Hubbard-Richard neighborhood is over the bridge company’s effort to vacate several public streets and alleyways near St. Anne’s Street, which is named after the historic church. Many Hubbard-Richard residents oppose the idea, but the Archdiocese of Detroit and some city officials support it. 

“It’s kind of typical of the way they operate and why people have mistrust,” Jessica Trevino said. “The Morouns seem to get the key politicians’ support and the neighborhood doesn’t learn about the plan until later.”

Trevino was at the Morouns’ press conference in front of the train station last week. She planted a small placard that said “Keep St. Anne St. open” near the gaggle of media waiting for the press event.

“I was hoping some of (the media) would pay attention to what else the Morouns are doing here. I just don’t think (the Morouns) have turned over a new leaf.”