Project C: Inside Ford's deal to save old train station

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News


Correction: This story has been updated to correct a mistake in a quote by Bill Ford Jr.

The next chapter for the dilapidated Michigan Central Depot, vacant since 1988, opened over dinner last Oct. 13 at the Country Club of Detroit.

The atrium of the Michigan Central Depot train station, in Detroit, June 14, 2018.

Credit a financial adviser by the name of Tom Buhl, descendant of a Detroit mayor and a prominent industrial family whose Michigan roots date back to the 1830s. He brokered a quiet, three-person sit-down that culminated in Ford Motor Co. buying the historic landmark.

"Would you let it go?" Dave Dubensky, CEO of Ford Land Co., recalled asking Matthew Moroun, whose family bought the station in 1992. "And he said, 'Gotta think about it. We'll get back to you, but I think I could, I would.'"

They did. On May 22, Ford's vision moved one step closer to reality: In a "virtual closing" orchestrated by lawyers and title companies, the Dearborn automaker became the new owner of the station opened in 1913. In its heyday, it had witnessed two world wars and the Great Depression, welcomed soldiers and sailors home, and once launched a young Bill Ford Jr. and his family on a cross-country train trip to California.

Now it faces the future as a new kind of transportation hub, focused around the mobility, autonomy and electrification technologies expected to power the auto industry's second century. They portend the most fundamental changes in personal transportation since Henry Ford’s moving assembly line produced Model Ts — and could shape a new narrative for a Detroit reinventing itself.

More: How Ford plans to resurrect the train station

More: Ford aims to keep train station lobby open to public

More: Ford depot purchase could give new life to symbol of Detroit's decline

Photos: Ford's new beginning for the old train station

Within four years, Ford expects to house as many as 5,000 employees — roughly half of them directly employed by the Blue Oval — in a renovated Corktown campus totaling 1.2 million square feet in at least three buildings, as well as a vacant parcel just west of the old Tiger Stadium site. 

"It's where the future will be built," Bill Ford Jr. said in an interview with The Detroit News. "We're going to have a corridor of mobility. The train station will be a spectacular building. It will be open to the public. One thing I don't want is to have a big corporate presence, to be seen as a corporate takeover of Corktown."

Instead of constructing an enclave of its own at the west edge of Corktown, the automaker plans to integrate its so-called campus into the surrounding community. It's already reached out to major Detroit developers — Dan Gilbert's Bedrock Real Estate, Peter Cummings' The Platform, Redico Management Inc. — and encouraged them to seek their own redevelopment projects in the neighborhood.

But first, it had to get the Morouns to "yes," roughly a year after Bill Ford Jr. attended a Ford family reunion at 1907 Michigan Ave. A former hosiery factory, the brick building at the corner of Rosa Parks Boulevard had been renovated by Buhl, his brother, Robbie, and some business partners.

Dave Dubensky, chairman of Ford Land, says the Mouroun family was open to talks from the start.

"I was blown away by the light, the neighborhood, the accessibility," Bill Ford Jr. recalled. He asked Dubensky and his Ford Land team to take a look at the space. Then he thought: "The train station went from the back of my mind to the forefront of my mind."

Two weeks after Dubensky's country club dinner with Moroun, the head of Ford Land met Michael Samhat, president of the Morouns' Crown Enterprises Inc., for dinner at the Foundation Hotel's Apparatus Room. The goal: get to know each other, get their teams working together and begin due diligence.

Code-named "Project C," for Corktown, Ford's process would focus on financial modeling to determine whether the purchase and renovation would make sense for the automaker, already deep into what's been said to be a billion-dollar renovation of its Dearborn facilities. And, second, conduct a structural and engineering review of the station. 

Because concrete encased the steel girders framing the building, corrosion of the station's core structure was deemed minimal. Same for the Guastavino tile vaults supporting the soaring 55-foot ceiling in the central lobby, which Ford envisions as a public space with retail and restaurants, coffee shops and perhaps a market.

"The structure, the bones of the building were really good," Dubensky said. "It was pretty much what we expected. Bill didn't put any pressure on us to do this. He said, 'Do what makes sense.'"

Last December, roughly two months after Dubensky's country club dinner with Moroun, Ford introduced what it called "The Factory," acquired from the Buhl partnership, at its holiday party for the news media. Bill Ford Jr., fully aware that Ford Land was deep in discussions with the Morouns' Crown Enterprises over the train station, that night noted history seemingly coming full circle.

Twenty-two years after Ford sold the Renaissance Center to rival General Motors Corp. and headed back to Dearborn, Ford Motor was back in Detroit. Back in the city of its founding by Henry Ford, he said, back near the old Detroit Lions office he frequented as a young man, back in a neighborhood named for the county in Ireland of his ancestors.

Still, the larger prize loomed just a short walk to the west — and Mayor Mike Duggan was eager to help. Any mayor would. Ford's vision promised 5,000 tax paying jobs coming into the city; a redevelopment of its biggest eyesore, Exhibit No. 1 in the city's "ruin porn"; a magnet for follow-on investment by suppliers, tech companies and service companies who see opportunity in Ford's plans.

Since around Labor Day, Duggan knew Ford's thinking. He'd traveled to the Glass House to pitch Bill Ford Jr. and CEO Jim Hackett on Detroit for a new research and engineering center he'd heard they were considering. Within two months, the mayor recalled in an interview, they told him they would be moving 200 members of their "Team Edison" mobility group into The Factory.

Ford's journey to acquire the train station included meetings between Matthew Moroun and the mayor of Detroit.

In December, the mayor met with Matthew Moroun. "It was a totally cordial, positive conversation," Duggan recalled. "This will be the biggest thing to happen in Detroit since Dan Gilbert brought Quicken down. We are absolutely looking at this as a link from the University of Michigan to Corktown. Detroit is not an island."

Without Matthew Moroun's cooperation, "this wouldn't be happening. And I think it's going to be transformational for Detroit. It's a huge statement around the world about where Detroit is, how far Detroit has come."

Moroun did not respond to a request for an interview. But in an appearance last week on NewsTalk-760 WJR's Paul W. Smith show, he said: "Begrudgingly, but, appropriately, it was time for us to get out of their way. They're going to be writing the first words of a new chapter, and that's their chapter to write." 

By January, the two sides reached what Dubensky described as a "conceptual agreement, nothing on paper." But it was enough for the Morouns to grant Ford access to the station to conduct the necessary structural evaluations. Less than two months later, in early March, they signed a purchase agreement laying out specific terms and conditions.

“I didn’t know if we could get the right business deal," Bill Ford Jr. recalled. "I didn’t know if structurally it was going to be sound enough to redevelop. I didn’t know if we could ultimately get the deal done. But I started feeling really good about this about two to three months ago."

Ford's purchase of the train station is just the latest property it has acquired in Corktown, where it plans a mobility campus.

He had reason to. Both sides were heading toward a closing that would put the train station in the metaphorical hands of a corporate giant with the resources, vision and leadership to actually deliver a renovation that could transform Detroit's oldest neighborhood — and potentially change the arc of Detroit's story of revitalization.

Ford is not just a hometown company. Where Gilbert's Quicken is the nation's leading mortgage lender and the Ilitch family's Little Caesar's brand has a presence in markets beyond the United States, Ford's Blue Oval is 115 years old this month and almost as well known in Germany and Russia as it is in the United Kingdom, where it's a market leader.

Ford's investment "will be a green-light for money that is not friends and family," Detroit Regional Chamber President Sandy Baruah said in a recent interview. On May 22, lawyers and title companies closed a transaction with potent symbolism: Ford is the owner of the Michigan Central Depot.

"Having us sit here in the middle of its all means we're all in," CEO Jim Hackett said in an interview. "Detroit is really hot."