For decades the hulk of Detroit’s Michigan Central train station loomed over this once-mighty city as a symbol of how far it had fallen. It was a must-see attraction for “ruin porn” tourists, who came to gawk at the burnt out, boarded up, rat-infested properties left behind when most of Detroit’s white population fled to the suburbs starting in the 1950s.
Now the gutted, graffiti-marked station, opened in 1913 and closed since 1988, is to be resurrected as a place where Ford can reinvent itself as a company that makes the electric and driverless vehicles of the future. The Detroit automaker, whose founder Henry Ford helped build one of America’s richest cities, has bought the station to help it prepare for a new automotive century.
Ford will spend $740m to create a 1.2m sq ft campus around the 18-storey Beaux Arts station, which will have offices for 2,500 Ford employees working on “new mobility”, plus 2,500 people working mostly for outside tech companies that support them, and retail and residential spaces. For the first time in decades, Ford will have a significant presence in the Motor City its founder helped create.
“For more than a generation, the train station has been the most visible symbol of our city’s decline,” says Mayor Mike Duggan. “Now, it will become the greatest symbol of our city’s resurgence.”
City stakeholders hope that the renovation will kick Detroit’s recovery into a new gear: attracting millennial workers; spreading economic growth beyond the established downtown and Midtown areas to a neighbourhood that needs jobs; and further securing the commitment of one of America’s largest companies to the success of its hometown.
Bill Ford Jr, great-grandson of the founder, has spoken of his emotional commitment to the Corktown neighbourhood where the station is located, an area of trendy restaurants and bars, gentrified residences, but also empty land where homes and businesses once stood. His ancestors emigrated from Cork in Ireland, after which it is named.
The decision to resurrect one of Detroit’s biggest eyesores — which the city council voted to demolish in 2009 — has raised eyebrows among some investors. Ford is widely seen as lagging behind its cross-town rival, General Motors, in the race to master technologies for electric, self-driving and shared vehicles. Shares have languished and profits have been hit by rising commodity costs, tariffs and slowing China sales.
In July, Ford spooked investors by announcing a potential $11bn restructuring charge over the next three to five years, cancelling an investor day and cutting full-year earnings guidance soon after hosting a high-profile public celebration to launch its ambitious station project. Ford had previously said it would cut costs by $25bn by 2022.
Asked whether Ford has the money or the management time to tackle a project of this magnitude, Dave Dubensky, chairman and chief executive of Ford Land, who is spearheading the Corktown project, says the $740m, which includes the undisclosed purchase price, was already in the budget.
Mr Dubensky says: “We decided to redo the Dearborn campus [ageing facilities in the wider Detroit Metropolitan area], and within our capital spending plan we set aside money to accommodate that.” Some of this amount was subsequently reallocated to the Michigan Central redevelopment. There will be “no incremental spending” for the station project, he says, though Ford is negotiating with the city and state of Michigan for $250m in incentives.
The reaction from potential employees and tenants has been “crazy” says Mr Dubensky, adding that Ford expects the Corktown site to help it compete for the kind of employee needed for Ford’s future. “We need to attract and retain great talent and we can’t do it with the campus we have today.”
The station project is not Ford’s first effort to change the face of Motor City. Henry Ford II, grandson of the founder, transformed the skyline in the 1970s with the Renaissance Centre, a futuristic multi-skyscraper development. General Motors bought the complex in 1996 and is headquartered there.
Now Ford is hoping to reinvent Corktown, along with its own business. Mr Dubensky admits that in any such project there are “unknowns” about cost. “Cosmetically it’s a mess, but it’s structurally sound and we determined it could be brought back to its original grandeur,” he says. Many of the city’s backers — not to mention Ford’s investors — are hoping that he is right.
“This is more than just a redemption story,” says Dan Austin, a city historian. “This is proof to the world of what we Detroiters have been saying for years: this time, Detroit’s comeback is for real.”
Get alerts on Ford Motor Co when a new story is published