Ford depot plans already drawing possible tenants

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
A view of the Detroit skyline from the top floor of the Michigan Central Depot train station.

Ford Motor Co. plans to have Michigan Central Depot open for business by 2022, the same year downtown real estate mogul and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert expects to finish his skyscraper at the former Hudson's department store site, along with three other developments in downtown Detroit. The Ford and Gilbert developments would need thousands of workers to fill the new office space.

The people behind those developments don’t see one development poaching business from the other the other part of the city.

The automaker detailed this week its sweeping overhaul of the train station to anchor a new transportation and technology center in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood. Already, entrepreneurs and small-business owners from around the country have reached out to Ford and others, looking to be part of the action.

"I don't see it as competition," said Eric Larson, CEO of the Downtown Detroit Partnership, an entity that aims to boost business downtown. "It's additive. We just haven't had this for so long. Any normal city operates with multiple owners, multiple options. That's what creates a better more competitive market."

Ford says the 500,000-square-foot, 18-story train station will anchor a 1.2-million-square-foot Corktown campus for the company's self-driving, electric car and alternative transportation teams, as well as the automaker's partners in those endeavors.

All told, Ford hopes to bring 5,000 employees to Corktown — 2,500 of whom will be Ford employees, with the remaining space to be filled by partner companies.

The Hudson's site — along with developments on Detroit's Monroe Block, renovations at the long-dormant Book Tower and Building, and an 11-story annex to the One Campus Martius building — are expected to add about 3.1 million square feet of new office, retail, residential and hotel space to downtown. Gilbert's company has said it expects the projects will create more than 7,700 jobs.

Detroit hasn't had multiple projects with promises from developers of bringing thousands of jobs into the city in decades. Ford's confirmation this week that it had indeed purchased the station with the intention of using it to help establish the next generation of the automotive industry there has brought phone calls from national technology and mobility companies that want to know how to get a space in the new Ford development.

Members of the media tour the train depot Tuesday.

Dave Dubensky, CEO of Ford Land Co. and the man instrumental in negotiating the sale of the long-vacant depot, told The Detroit News on Wednesday that technology and mobility partners as well as entrepreneurs have been reaching out to Ford since the announcement. The company has also heard from construction contractors who want a hand in the renovation, and businesses that want to fill the ground floor.

Curating the train station will be a two-pronged effort for Ford: The company will have to decide which companies will take up the additional office space inside the depot, and at the same time configure the businesses in occupying the public ground floor based on what Detroit residents say they want to see inside the station.

The automaker hasn't started working on the building yet. Ford Land employees told The Detroit News it will take nearly a year just to button up the blighted building up from the elements and "dry it out" after years of being exposed to rain, snow and ice. 

"We'll be in a really cool position down the road when we determine who's going to join us," Dubensky said. "It's never too early (to) put them on the list."

Chris Thomas is a long-time investor in the automotive mobility space and a partner at Fontinalis Partners LLC, the venture capital firm co-founded by Bill Ford Jr. Thomas recently co-founded Detroit Mobility Lab, which is aimed at growing the talent base of professionals ready to work in Autos 2.0 here in Detroit.

He and others at Fontinalis fielded calls from entrepreneurs and small-business owners interested in either setting up an office in Detroit or in the train station immediately upon Ford's announcements published over the weekend.

Fontinalis is not affiliated with Ford or the train station. But Thomas said the amount of interest indicates what Ford's presence in Corktown — where it plans to build a sort of creative ecosystem bent on attracting new employees to the 115-year-old company that's attempting to transition from a manufacturer to a company that sells transportation — could bring to Detroit.

Ford's plans for Corktown seem to have raise the interest that Ford and Detroit have so desperately been trying to attract, based on the calls Dubensky, Thomas and others say they've already received.

That national interest could generate an ecosystem that helps develop the local pool of talent Thomas and his partners seek to grow in Detroit.

"This is something that grabs the Detroiter by the collar and says 'You can be a part of this, too,'" he said.

“The ripple effect of this transformative decision not only will restore this architectural gem, but will have an enormous impact on all of Corktown and Detroit—with thousands of high-tech jobs, a healthier real estate market, an expanded tax base, and an infusion of a young, motivated workforce," said Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loans Inc. chairman.

"This is further confirmation that Detroit’s rise is not only sustainable but is gaining momentum …"

With Ford's plans expected to materialize by 2022 around the same time as Gilbert's, the two endeavors could work in conjunction to build a diverse new stream of business that's new to the city, and help local businesses and the local workforce grow to fill the new spaces Ford and Gilbert will offer, according to Larson.

Said Thomas before Ford's Tuesday event: "This is what happens in big cities. This is what's supposed to happen." 

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

Staff writer Louis Aguilar contributed