Noted Plymouth artist drives plan to convert old plant into artists haven

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
A rendering of the proposed rehabilitation of the century-old Wilcox mill near Hines Park.

For years, an aging former Ford Motor Co. plant in Plymouth has languished, falling into disrepair

If a public-private partnership gains approval, the site could   feature an artists’ studio, public gallery, sculpture garden, biking paths and more to complement the rest of Hines Park, which includes the property.

The Penn Theatre, in Plymouth, is full to capacity for a public meeting to discuss the Wayne County Mill Run Project on Wednesday.

The goal is to offer "an amenity unlike we’ve ever seen before," Assistant Wayne County Executive Khalil Rahal told an audience Tuesday. "It’s going to be valuable."

More than 400 residents attended a community forum at the Penn Theatre to learn more about efforts to transform the long-dormant, century-old Wilcox mill considered part of Hines Park. The county's Division and Economic Development Corp. has been seeking to redevelop the Wilcox, along with the nearby Phoenix and Newburgh mills that Ford once owned, through partnerships.

Protesters against the Wayne County Mill Run Project, left, are joined by counter-protesters involved with the Art Foundation of Detroit.

Carrying signs such as "Stop the lies," a small group of demonstrators stood outside the event to protest the proposals, which aim to add 16-29 acres to the park's overall footprint, connect bicycle and pedestrian trails with the state's larger network of recreation routes as well as link to other regional sites, officials have said. County officials have said there are also possibilities for restaurants, breweries and bicycle shops.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has touted selling off the mills, which once produced auto parts and World War II armaments, as a way to create attractions and retain residents.

Tony Roko, founder of the Art Foundation of Detroit.

Acclaimed Plymouth artist Tony Roko, who has served as a resident artist at Ford Motor Co., is spearheading the effort to revive the Wilcox site through his Art Foundation, a Plymouth-based nonprofit.. 

More public hearings are scheduled before the Wayne County Commission approves the plans, Rahal said.

Roko's team and the county have spent months fielding input from the community and developing a plan to overhaul the mill, which has been listed in the state registry of historic sites since 1989. According to state documents, it was among the earliest plants Ford launched and at one point manufactured 95% of all engine taps the automaker used. It ceased operations after World War II.

Art Foundation executive director Greg Hoffman pointed out the boarded-up windows, crumbling portions of the building and unsafe conditions. "It really needs a lot of love very soon or else the next discussions are going to be about demolition," he said.

Plans call for "creating a new arts education campus that serves a new gateway to Plymouth," Hoffman said.

Frank English, of Hamtramck, right, protests the Wayne County Mill Run Project while students involved with the Art Foundation of Detroit counter-protest before a public meeting.

Among the features: converting the mill's lower level into an arts education "flex space" and a gallery, while adapting an upper floor for studio space that would service apprentice artists and an artist live-work residence.

The wooded area outside would be preserved and complement a pedestrian entrance as well as a plaza to host outdoor programs. Nearby would be a "shining jewel," Hoffman said, a sculpture garden and walk that is slated to feature designs from elementary-school students.

"It's going to be like walking into the mind of a child," he said.

Developers are required to do the work in compliance with historic buildings and to pursue listing their property on the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places, the county said.

Many of the meeting attendees applauded the plans.

"The members of our group extensively debated all the pros and cons of selling off this property and the consensus … is that these mills are crumbling," said Wendy Harless, who chairs the Plymouth Preservation Network. "It's finally going to be a place where we can all enjoy it."

Lora Jarvi of Salem Township, who often visits the park,  wants to see plans move forward. "It's going to offer a lot to the community," she said. "It's going to be wonderful to see the eyesore turn into something productive."

Others oppose the plans, including residents with Save Hines Park, a coalition working to protect the land and circulating a petition to do so. Some of the members protested outside the forum Tuesday night.

Protestors against the Wayne County Mill Run Project, left, are joined by counter-protestors involved with the Art Foundation of Detroit before a public meeting.

"Wayne County should not be selling any of the parkland," said Dennis Lewis, a Westland resident active with the group who was among the demonstrators. "We want to keep it in the public domain."

Members claim the county's plans defy a millage that voters first approved in 1996 and renewed in 2016 that pays for operating county recreation facilities.They also object to Roko's plans, saying in an online statement that “it is an outright sale and loss of 3 acres of OUR parkland. Even if he keeps all the promises he is making, the mill and land will become private property and when it is sold, the next purchaser of the property will have no obligation to preserve the property.”

County leaders argue the effort is necessary.

“Wayne County can't afford to restore or even maintain these mills from millage funds. The cost to rehabilitate the three mills is estimated in the millions. This price tag, likely, exceeds the annual capital improvements revenue generated by the Parks millage. Diverting funds from the Parks millage or other County sources would mean defunding other important parks projects and, even then, the Parks millage, likely, wouldn't cover the cost of this project," officials said in a statement on the county website.

The site could feature an artists’ studio, public gallery, sculpture garden, biking paths and more

Rahal noted that "we don’t have the available resources we need to get these historic mills back to their glory."

Meanwhile, plans for the other two mills associated with Hines Park are ongoing.

In September, the county commission voted to approve the sale of Phoenix Mill to Critical Mass LLC. A purchase and development agreement requires rehabilitating the building while respecting the original styling and ensuring public access to the site, the county reported.  

Meanwhile, the county has started marketing the Newburgh mill, which was used as a the headquarters for the Forestry Division and the Sheriff's Mounted Division, to potential development partners to restore the properties, incorporating public uses and interpretive space.