Ford hails Detroit a new ‘city of possibility’; residents hopeful, sceptical

  • TECH
  • Friday, 22 Jun 2018

Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co., speaks during an event at the Michigan Central Station in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. Ford will redevelop the former train depot as part of a new downtown campus for autonomous and electric vehicle businesses. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

DETROIT: As Ford Motor Co celebrated its return to Detroit with dignitaries and grand plans for the new economy and the future of transportation at Michigan Central Station in Corktown, Alondra Alvarez worried. 

She slipped into the train station during a media huddle on June 19 and approached Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, American industrial royalty. She had a question. 

Alvarez, 18, an incoming freshman at Michigan State University whose parents, Monica and Raul, own Alvarez Party Store, wondered whether Ford was thinking about them and the multilingual community in southwest Detroit that includes Mexicantown. 

“How will you get the word out, especially to the Spanish-speaking community?” she asked Ford. She asked with all the sincerity and heart imaginable from a young woman genuinely worried about long-time Detroiters being swept aside. 

He paused and leaned in to talk to her directly. “I plan to reach out to the community. I don't want this to be some sort of corporate takeover,” he said. He emphasised his desire to include residents in crafting the future of the building that's expected to bring 5,000 workers to the neighbourhood by 2022. 

She apologised for intruding on the press event, explaining that she doesn't want people who have remained in the core of the city during hard times to be forgotten. She wants to help, she said, and will watch as events unfold. 

Hopeful scepticism wasn't unusual June 19 as Ford celebrated its plan to revitalise an iconic ruin, and with it the city. 

The train station, long a symbol of the city's demise, will be transformed to be a symbol that “Detroit is open for business for good”, Bill Ford had just told thousands gathered for the celebration of the automaker's purchase of the iconic building at the west edge of Corktown. 

People so desperately want to believe in what's possible. 

'Place of possibility' 

Ford hosted a community celebration that included a one-hour programme and opening the station to the public for the first time in some 30 years. 

Now is the time, Bill Ford said, “to write a new chapter”. 

He told a crowd of more than 3,000 at the train station site that he planned to transform the city into “a place of possibility again”. He praised the Motor City for the size of its heart, strength of its people and scope of their ideas. 

“We're reimagining mobility,” he said, praising the “inventors and dreamers” who will take the city into a new beginning. He praised Detroit for being “resilient and tough”. 

Ford CEO Jim Hackett praised Bill Ford, executive chairman of the company, as someone who will “step out on the edge” before everyone agrees. Hackett talked of how a “cut-and-paste” approach to running a car company based on dated strategies wasn't going to work; transportation is a new venture that requires technology investment. 

“What Rouge was to Ford in the industrial age, Corktown will be for Ford in the information age,” Hackett said. “Think of this as a knowledge cathedral where new ideas are birthed.” 

While Silicon Valley focuses on moving bytes, Detroit will focus on moving people. 

This agenda, promised Hackett, “will take us somewhere bold and new”. 

Ford intends to make a renovated Michigan Central Station “the next great anchor in Detroit's comeback” and the center that restores Detroit's place as the “mobility capital of the world”. 

'Our Ellis Island' 

“For 76 years, the train station was our Ellis Island,” Bill Ford said in assessing the importance of the depot to Detroit. “Once the last train pulled out, it became the symbol that hope left. ... It's time to remake the station into a place of possibility again.” 

He added: “Michigan Central Station is a place that in many ways tells the story of Detroit over the past century. We at Ford want to help write the next chapter, working together in Corktown with the best startups, the smartest talent and the thinkers, engineers and problem-solvers who see things differently – all to shape the future of mobility and transportation.” 

The acquisition of the depot comes alongside the company's purchase of the former Detroit Public Schools Book Depository, 2 acres of vacant land, the site of an old brass factory and the previous purchase of a refurbished former factory in Corktown, now home to Ford's electric vehicle and autonomous vehicle business teams, a company statement said. 

The release said Ford plans to have at least 1.2 million square feet of space in Corktown, three-quarters of which will be split between the company and its partners. 

This is Detroit's biggest comeback moment yet. 

“We want this to be a community space,” Bill Ford said. “We want to bring in local shops and restaurants, entrepreneurs and small businesses. We want everyone to be involved.” 

Hub of a mobility corridor 

But the business function of the station, besides its branding and recruiting value, will be as the hub of a campus for advanced automotive technology. 

“It will be the proving ground where Ford and our partners design and test the services and solutions for the way people are going to live and get around tomorrow, creating a southeast Michigan mobility corridor that spans west from Dearborn to Ann Arbor, and east to Detroit,” Hackett said. 

Entertainment included Detroit rapper Big Sean and the Detroit Children's Choir. Big Sean noted that the train station was shuttered the year he was born, 1988. He expressed pride that the renovation marks Detroit's comeback, pushing good jobs into the city's neighbourhoods. He dedicated his music to his grandmother and the city, singing lyrics that touched on seeing murder as child in urban American, and believing in the future. 

“Detroit, I love you so much,” he said to a cheering crowd. 

Then the Cass Tech graduate invited Bill Ford to the stage, and they embraced. 

This was a tight public event that didn't include an invocation but did spotlight a brilliant cellist playing Journey's Don't Stop Believin'. Ford brought in food trucks and Faygo. 

Donzell Simmons, 23, of Southfield attended the event specifically to see Big Sean, whose music captures the spirit of Detroit: “hustle, motivation and hard work pays off.” 

James Rose, a native Detroiter who lives in Auburn Hills, shared fond memories of picking up his grandfather at the station, which foreshadowed endless good things. “Whenever something is renewed in Detroit, it really makes our people feel this city is important in the world.” 

Demolition ordered 

Mayor Mike Duggan pointed to the date April 7, 2009, and told the crowd that it was the time the Detroit City Council voted to order the demolition of the train station. “There was no hope.” 

With the train station dead, the international press wrote the city's obituary. And now, he added, “Who would've imagined?” 

The event also included an announcement that the History channel is preparing a powerful documentary about the city's resurrection called Detroit: Comeback City to debut July 1. 

Ford, whose mother, wife and children sat in the front section of the event, acknowledged some of the city's youngest entrepreneurs. Alessandra Carreon, 33, a systems analyst at Ford, opened PizzaPlex at 4458 W. Vernor near Mexicantown in September 2017. It's all about investing in the neighbourhoods, she said. 

The depot, a towering ruin that came to symbolise the city's dramatic fall, was sold to Ford earlier this month. 

Matthew Moroun, whose family enterprise had owned the empty 18-story station since 1995, announced the sale June 11. He declined to reveal the sale price. 

The Beaux arts-style train station, designed by the same architectural firms that designed Grand Central Terminal in New York, opened in 1913 as the tallest train station in the world. 

Outpouring of emotion 

Word of Ford's plans has prompted an outpouring of emotion in the community, with onlookers streaming by the station, sharing stories, and one even returning a clock stolen from the building. 

The building fell into deep disrepair and was the target of vandals and trespassers. 

Joe Marx, owner of a Herman Miller office furniture shop, just moved his business from the suburbs to Lafayette and Griswold in Detroit, where his mother and his mother-in-law live. He looks forward to working with Ford to fill offices in the train station with furniture. 

“This whole project presents a whole new way of thinking, of working and of living,” he said. 

Ford said it would continue with its Dearborn Campus Transformation plan, which started in 2016. It has said, though, that the train station project fit within its existing capital budget. 

Mark Davidoff, who lives in the Brush Park Historic District in Detroit, said, “This is a game-changing moment for our city. Decades from now, people will look back on this day as a catalyst for transforming Detroit to its proper place on the world stage – as a place you want to live and work and play and raise children.” 

US Rep. Debbie Dingell said, “My memory of the train station is being empty and gutted. This is a symbol that pulls us together as a region and a state.” 

Detriot City Council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez said that while the redevelopment of the train station is exciting, it's important to ensure that residents within the area benefit from it as well. 

“Already, especially around the train station, you hear fears of being displaced,” she said. “For me, in my office, we're trying to make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate in the redevelopment and make sure there's a very inclusive planning process in place.” 

Castaneda-Lopez said many expect the level of investment in the redevelopment will trigger the city's community benefits ordinance measure. 

“We want to make sure that the people who make Corktown into the great community it is today are able to stay and benefit,” she said. 

Council President Brenda Jones said that in her conversations with Ford, she inquired about the company leasing spaces to smaller businesses and those owned by women and minorities. 

“By doing it at a subsidised rate, it will help them build the capacity of those businesses,” Jones said. 

Council member Janee Ayers said she urged Ford in a meeting to be inclusive and allow for an open space for the community. 

“They were very open to the idea,” Ayers said. “I also asked that they be cognizant of the fact that we want you to be here but we don't want you to disrupt the fabric of the community that's been here.” 

Council member Scott Benson also expressed concerns about maintaining the fabric of the community by ensuring residents are able to continue to afford living in the area. Benson said while the property values of nearby homeowners will likely soar, he's worried about the impact on renters. 

“Renters are going to be priced out,” Benson said. “I suggested finding ways to minimize displacement.” 

Bill Ford reassured people publicly and privately not to worry, that his family has been committed to the city and its residents for more than a century. 

Chris Ilitch, whose family spent millions refurbishing the Fox Theatre and the area nearby, sat in the front row of the celebration June 19. 

“Quite simply, this is a historic day,” he said. “It's a giant leap forward for our entire community.” — Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service

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