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Moroun gains in Detroit land swap raise residents' ire

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
The Ambassador Bridge view includes the Hubbard Richard neighborhood, including Sainte Anne Parish de Detroit in the southwest area of the city. Property owned by the bridge owners in the neighborhood would grow under a deal to finalize the FCA Jeep plant on Detroit's east side.

Detroit — The city's drive to get a new Jeep factory on the east side is causing uproar in a southwest neighborhood near the Ambassador Bridge because Mayor Mike Duggan has agreed to give land in their neighborhood to the billionaire owners of the bridge. 

It could cause another wrinkle in the tight deadline to get the Jeep Plant deal approved by the end of the month. 

The land swap in the Hubbard Richard neighborhood is a small part of the deal forged by Duggan to assemble 215 acres from private land owners for a potential FCA/Chrysler Jeep plant on the east side. It would be a $2.5 billion investment expected to bring nearly 5,000 jobs. The deal would expand Jefferson North Assembly and convert its Mack Avenue Engine Complex to build new versions of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. 

Details emerged late last week in public meetings that the Jeep Plant deal will allow owners of the Ambassador Bridge to add to the land it owns in Hubbard Richard. The bridge owners agreed to sell 82.2 acres of land for $43.5 million where the new auto plant would be built. Another part of the deal includes the bridge owners getting a total of 116 acres of city-owned land in various parts of Detroit.  

Many residents in Hubbard Richard have long opposed plans by the bridge owners. 

The amount of Hubbard Richard land involved is small, less than 2 acres. Some of it is on St. Anne Street near the historic Catholic Church of the same name and another parcel is on the 2000 block of West Fort Street. 

But the pushback could potentially add another political obstacle to getting the FCA/Jeep plant deal approved. Some residents say they were stunned to learn the deal would include expanding the bridge owners' property miles away in southwest Detroit. 

"It's alarming and just plain sneaky," said Shaun Nethercott, a longtime Hubbard Richard resident. "Why the hell is the city giving more free land to billionaires? And why did they try to do this without letting residents know?"

She and other residents are concerned it means the potential closing of a part of St. Anne's Street or an expansion of a wall that separates the bridge from the historic neighborhood. Both acts would require City Council approval.

The sentiment was echoed by about a dozen residents on a neighborhood listserv, a subscription-based email list, where participants tried to find more information. Many also express disappointment.

"It saddens me that no one is notified and that residents were not engaged," one resident posted. 

.Michael Samhat, president of Crown Enterprises, was unavailable for comment Sunday evening.

Several residents urged people to call City Council members to oppose the FCA deal. 

Last week, the Jeep plant deal received some pushback when a City Council committee delayed its vote on the pact because it wanted more information. Also last week, the city's Economic Development Corp., a quasi-public agency, also delayed its vote.

The deal is on a tight deadline. Duggan and FCA wants the deal sealed by May 21 in order to meet a construction and hiring schedule. Construction is expected to start this year, with a planned opening date of late 2020.

The city needed to assemble land for the plant by buying property from various owners. One of the major landowners in the deal is Crown Enterprises Inc., the real estate arm of the Moroun family.  Manuel Moroun and his son Matthew Moroun own the Ambassador Bridge, which connects the U.S. and Canada, and trucking and logistics firms based in the U.S. and internationally. The Morouns also own a considerable amount of Detroit property through various entities. 

The Moroun family will get 116 acres owned by the city as part of the city deal.

For decades now, many residents in Hubbard Richard and other southwest Detroit communities have opposed Moroun's plan to build a new span that the family says would pay for itself.

In a statement Sunday evening, Thomas Lewand, the city of Detroit's Group Executive for Jobs and Economy, emphasized the economic payoff for the new Jeep plant, and Moroun's essential cooperation. 

“FCA’s $2.5B, 4,950-job investment in Detroit could not go forward without control of the Budd Plant, a Crown-owned property that already has a valuable long-term lease," he said.

Lewand also pointed to two other city-owned sites in southwest, one on 16th and Bagley, and the other at the former Detroit Public Works, that are being redeveloped. The two projects are separate from the Moroun land swap. 

"We also look forward to holding job and contractor fairs to help southwest Detroit residents get jobs at the expanded plant and help southwest Detroit businesses get supplier contracts," the statement said. 

City Council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who represents the area, could not be reached for comment Sunday evening. 

The land battles in southwest Detroit with the Morouns 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 addicts, some residents contend.

Twitter: @LouisAguilar