Ford Motor Co. is negotiating the purchase of the old Michigan Central train station a mile from the city’s downtown, according to numerous sources.
The 500,000 square-foot tower, once the world’s tallest railroad depot, has served as a symbol of the Motor City’s decay since closing three decades ago. But if the deal comes together, insiders suggest, it could serve as a sign that Detroit’s nascent renaissance is truly taking hold.
It would also bring Ford back in a big way to the city where it was born. The automaker was incorporated along the Detroit riverfront and founder Henry Ford’s earliest factories were just miles away from the Michigan Central Station. But for most of the last century, Ford has centered its operations in Dearborn, a suburb to the west of Detroit that largely escaped the economic collapse of Motown.
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Henry Ford II, the grandson of the company’s founder, bet big on Detroit in the mid-1970s, serving as a major funder of the massive riverfront Renaissance Center complex. But after his death, Ford began moving operations from the RenCen back to Dearborn and, in 1996 sold the seven-tower complex to rival General Motors for a paltry $70 million. GM moved its headquarters into the facility and has since invested over $1 billion in upgrades.
GM’s investment was one of the catalysts that has helped the Motor City begin its unexpected rebound. Dan Gilbert, the owner of Quicken Loans and Rock Mortgage, among other ventures, has purchased over 100 buildings over the past decade encouraging a broader flood of new jobs and investments. Even with new housing projects, meanwhile, residential occupancy rates have surged to an estimated 98%, according to city data.
But the abandoned Michigan Central building, which towers over the mostly residential Corktown neighborhood, has continued to serve as an icon of decay, stubbornly reminding city and business officials of the challenges that remain.
For its part, Ford recently dipped its toe into the Detroit revival when it purchased a low-rise former manufacturing site, known as “The Factory,” late last year. It is expected to begin serving as the headquarters of the automaker’s autonomous and electrified vehicle programs once the first of a planned 200 workers begin moving in this coming May.
During a preview of the site last December, several Ford executives strongly hinted to TheDetroitBureau.com that they were considering other options within the city. And that was underscored by a statement issued by Ford this week that said, “we anticipate our presence will grow” as the autonomous and electrified vehicle programs expand. That said, the automaker cautioned that is has “nothing further to announce at this time.”
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According to several reports, the bid to purchase the Michigan Central Station is being driven by the latest heir to the Ford throne, Henry Ford’s great-grandson Bill Ford Jr. The automaker’s current chairman, Ford told TheDetroitBureau.com in December he was committed to aiding Detroit’s turnaround.
Were he to pull off a purchase, Ford Motor Co. would have plenty of work before it could use the facility. The old depot is in dreadful shape.
The facility was opened after a December 1913 fire destroyed the old Michigan Central Railroad terminal in downtown Detroit. At its peak, it served over 200 trains a day, but as the automobile took root, rail travel declined and even Amtrak abandoned the station in 1986.
A series of plans have failed to come to fruition and vandals largely destroyed the once-elegant facility’s gran lobby and façade over the years. Current owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun, has been repeatedly faulted for failing to maintain the building, though he has made some moves over the last several years, including replacing the station’s windows and fixing some of its elevators, at an estimated cost of $8 million. But it has been unclear whether the billionaire investor was hoping to eventually rebuild the station on his own or just make it more appealing to a buyer.
By some estimates, the 18-story tower would provide room for 1,000 or so workers. But projections of the renovation costs have nudged into the hundreds of millions of dollars. There’s not even a parking structure on the site currently.
According to several Detroit media reports, the automaker is hoping to lock down a deal by May. How long it would take to make the once-grand Grand Central Station usable again is uncertain but would likely take several years, at the least, according to observers.
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