UM innovation center will give Detroit edge, officials say

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A $300 million plan for a University of Michigan innovation center downtown is the latest investment that officials say will help elevate the city as a metropolitan center.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the planned technology-focus campus will round out the city's higher education offerings, giving it a competitive edge against other cities nationally like Chicago and Boston.

Formally announced Wednesday, the 14-acre campus to be operated by the university will have a 190,000-square-foot "center of innovation" as its centerpiece. It will be located at the once decaying failed Wayne County Jail site in Greektown.

Rendering of the $300 million innovation center on the site of Wayne County's failed jail that would be operated by the University of Michigan.

Once it opens, the center will provide master's level instruction and certificate education in technology-related fields to up to 1,000 graduate students.

The planned focus areas including artificial intelligence and mobility, Duggan said, will ensure the city is a leader in building the automated vehicles of the future.

"This innovation center is going to be something that will be transformational," Duggan said during an elaborate Wednesday news conference at the project site on Gratiot. "We all know the future of the auto industry is being decided right now. It’s Detroit versus Silicon Valley. Detroit now has a major leg up in that competition to make sure the future of the auto industry comes right here out of the city of Detroit.”

Detroit, since its municipal bankruptcy, has worked to rebuild itself with the addition of offices for Google, LinkedIn and Microsoft Corp., in and around downtown. Most notably though, Duggan said, is a commitment from Ford Motor Co. to bring 5,000 employees and contractors to its future Corktown campus to design future electric and automated vehicles.

"Bill Ford was the inspiration and created the momentum for this," Duggan said. "We wouldn't be here without him."

Andrew Campbell, dean of the graduate school at Brown University, said the opening of a University of Michigan campus in Detroit signals its commitment to the city, its residents and the state. 

"This initiative is a bold investment in people," Campbell said. "This move will transform the educational and workforce landscape of the city of Detroit."

Wayne County's infamous half-built jail was torn down and the site sold to Dan Gilbert's Bedrock Detroit last year, after the Quicken Loans founder lobbied for years to house a new corrections facility elsewhere. 

"Here we are on the once infamous failed jail site, a development that was designed to lock up members of our community," Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said. "There was always a vision that something really good could happen here."

Warren Evans, Wayne County executive, talks about the development of a planned "center of innovation" on the site of the failed Wayne County Jail on Gratiot in Detroit.

The project would be supported by a substantial financial pledge from real estate mogul Stephen Ross, chairman of the New York-based Related Companies LP and the university's single largest donor.

The total project, to be developed by Dan Gilbert's Bedrock real estate arm, likely would cost more than $500 million and envisions a multi-building campus with a hotel, and event space, academic building and innovation center that eventually could include a residential component. The project also includes plans for an incubator center to help get startups off the ground. 

This is a dramatic pivot for Gilbert, who just two years ago wanted to use the unfinished jail site in Greektown for a $1 billion mixed-use development anchored by a Major League Soccer stadium and high-rise buildings.

Scott Andes, program director at the Center for City Solutions for the National League of Cities, said having multiple "academic powerhouses" aligned with a city's industrial strength is a big deal.

Andes, who has seen successes with city and university partnerships elsewhere, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, said Detroit is well position with its support from Ross and Gilbert.

"This has been a successful model in other parts of the country," he said. "The mayor is in a great position to do this with his peers in the private sector and the University of Michigan."

Beyond building the facility and bringing students and researchers in, the strategy to keep them is what will matter most.

"The difference between decent success and really phenomenal success is maintaining a leadership group that sees the long-term vision," he said.

Matt Cullen, CEO of Bedrock, left, joins Stephen M. Ross and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in applause Wednesday for remarks by Councilwoman Janee Ayers.

Bedrock CEO Matt Cullen said specifics on funding are still being worked out, but it also will include support from Gilbert. Bedrock, he said, intends to convey part of the property to a development group as well as the university. 

Over the next 90 to 180 days, project partners — including the city of Detroit, county, Bedrock, the university and others — will embark on community engagement efforts and assess the feasibility of the overall project, officials said.

The project marks the next chapter for the site that Evans inherited from his predecessor, Bob Ficano. Meantime, following a property swap with the county, Gilbert's team is moving ahead with plans to build the county a new justice complex east of Interstate 75.

Gilbert, who has spent the last several months recovering from a stroke, could not attend the Wednesday announcement. But Cullen said Gilbert "is doing well" and "thought about being here today."

"He's going to be here and involved soon," Cullen said. "Ten years ago, he was saying 'we need something different here than a jail,' and now it came to fruition."

For Duggan, the campus levels the playing field for Detroit among other major educational centers in the country.

Wayne State University excels in medicine and law and recently added its Mike Ilitch School of Business, while the University of Detroit leads in dentistry and Michigan State University has a city-based osteopathic college.  

"Detroiters are going to have this whole range of options," he said. "This is what great cities do."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the center will help attract and retain workers and aid in her effort to close the skills gap in Michigan. 

"We know that there are tens of thousands of jobs that are going unfilled," she said. "We've got to close this skills gap. It is doable when we look at opportunities like the one that we are announcing today."

Businessman and philanthropist Stephen M. Ross, chairman of Related Companies, gives his remarks about the  development of the planned "center of innovation" on the site of the failed Wayne County Jail on Gratiot Avenue in Detroit.

The university was founded in Detroit in 1817 and the new campus will mark its return for the first time in 180 years, officials said. 

The academic programs will be developed by James Hilton, a University of Michigan vice provost, with the help of a committee of faculty from the university's three campuses, President Mark Schlissel said.

The university, he said, has more than 300 projects already taking place in the city, including partnerships with Detroit's public schools and Marygrove College. 

"This is where we were born; this is where we live," he said. "It will be a process that will be playing out for years, but we're getting started immediately."

Ross, a real estate developer who relocated from Detroit to New York, said Wednesday he began considering a major investment in the city several years ago.

"The beneficiary is really all of Detroit," Ross said. "It will have impact throughout all the neighborhoods in Detroit and bring jobs, jobs that people never thought would be coming back to Detroit."

Evans and Duggan said Wednesday that they are working together engaging Wayne State University and community groups to ensure that the effort will also benefit Detroiters. 

Although the campus will largely be for graduate studies, Duggan said there could be opportunities for summer and other enrichment programs for young Detroit students.

Evans said he's hopeful the institution will draw more talent to the city and boost its residence base and workforce and be accessible to residents of the city and county. 

"Talent exists everywhere but opportunity does not," he said. "We need to be sure that children throughout the county and the city have a viable path to this institution and that this institution is as inclusive as possible."