So Bill Ford wants the Blue Oval to buy the decrepit Michigan Central Depot. You know that toothless edifice, empty and decaying since 1988, towering over Detroit’s Corktown. It’s an 18-story high reminder of the industrial and financial decline that has been synonymous with this town.
Until very recently.
It’s hard to overstate just what it would mean for the city if Ford Motor established its cars-of-the-future labs and testing on the west edge of downtown.
It would be huge – if the scion to one of America’s great industrial families can pry Matty Moroun’s aging fingers off the historic train station. Businessman Moroun has owned the building for more than 20 years and done virtually nothing with it.
The guy with his name on the building sees a circle of life kinda’ story here. His ancestral home is County Cork, Ireland, namesake of Detroit’s oldest neighborhood. His great grandfather, ol’ Henry, began his motorcar business in the Motor City.
And Ford wants to compete. It wants hip millennial talent uninterested in working in suburban office parks. It wants to play in the mobility and self-driving vehicle spaces. It wants to be part of Detroit’s reinvention. And until it’s opening of what it calls, quote, “The Factory” in Corktown, it pretty much hasn’t been.
What if the Blue Oval manages to make the station and that corner of Corktown the center of the Dearborn automaker’s mobility-and-autonomy development? It could be the biggest economic infusion in Detroit since mortgage king Dan Gilbert moved his first wave of employees here from Livonia.
Not so much for the number of jobs Ford’s move would bring. But for the symbolism: here would be next-century, tech-driven transportation being developed for markets around the world in a building opened 105 years ago.
Powerful is too weak a word to describe what this could mean – if it happens. This could be the beginning of the next wave for Detroit. It would be outside of downtown. It would answer a plea offered with greater urgency as Gilbert’s empire spreads: what about the neighborhoods?
Ford would be offering one answer.
It would bring a global business imprimatur and massive financial infusion to the historic neighborhood. In taxpaying jobs. In increased business activity, much of it focused on next-generation technology.
It would increase property values and, yes, probably increase rents. Isn’t that what investing in “the neighborhoods” is supposed to be all about? Use private capital to eliminate blight by renovating dilapidated real estate and increasing the tax base?
You can’t have it both ways. Can’t campaign for more investment in the city’s neighborhoods and then complain when it comes and drives values higher.
That’s pretty much what happened downtown. Generate jobs and tax revenue. Convert unproductive property into productive economic activity. Attract Detroiters and non-Detroiters back to the city. Show cynics that Detroit’s arc of reinvention keeps bending higher and wide.
This could be huge, folks. And if Bill Ford gets his way, it will be.
Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.