Opinion: It is Not Just a New Building!
Time for another full disclosure note: I work at Ford, and have lived in Metro Detroit (including downtown Detroit) for 6 years as a transplant from Chicago. This will be a biased opinion piece. Deal with it. ~Sal
I read a blog post from our friends at Jalopnik questioning Ford’s purchase of the train station in Detroit (known to the rest of the world as Michigan Central Station). The article challenges the good will in buying “an old property at a low-cost and using public tax incentives to renovate it”.
Here’s the thing – I’d invite you to spend some time in the area, living and breathing it, and tell me it doesn’t change your opinion. Let’s start with some high-level background.
Ford started its roots in the city. From Mack Avenue, Piquette Avenue, and through to Highland Park, the company was built in the city. With the construction of the Rouge Complex, the company began its pilgrimage to Dearborn. The Renaissance Center, opened in 1977 and now owned and occupied by GM, was originally conceptualized and partially funded by Ford as its own headquarters. Until a small group moved into Corktown this past year, there had not been a significant Ford presence inside the city since the Ren Cen sale. In part, this is due to its original founder’s abhorrence to city life.
So Detroit has now become synonymous with GM. Ford is Dearborn. FCA is Auburn Hills. Especially to locals. The purchase and subsequent renovation and occupation of this train station shifts that dynamic. Yes, Ford will not have as many employees there as GM has at the Ren Cen, but it now has a major presence in the city. That area will no doubt be transformed. Not to mention – Ford now has a direct artery between the Dearborn complex and its new, swanky city digs. Perfect proving ground for autonomous passenger vehicles, shuttles, and other mobility projects.
When I first got here from Chicago, I lived out in Dearborn as it was close to work. For the first year, I avoided downtown at all. I thought what everyone else thought – it is the American center of blight. Going to/from Red Wings game, I would pass by the Train Station and it would be a perfect visage for this stereotype.
I would later get over these thoughts, and spent the better part of the next 4 years living and breathing the city (with Mike as my travel guide). Commuting in for dinners or drinks with friends. Spending weekends walking around downtown, seeing the renovation, meeting and becoming friends with local small business owners. I even moved in with my girlfriend to her apartment in the heart of downtown. An important thing to note for those who don’t live down here – the downtown restaurant/bar circuit has a small town feel. There was a time a few years ago where I ran into at least one person I knew anywhere I went in the city – whether it was the owners, bartenders, wait staff, or patrons. This is a crucial part of Detroit’s soul these days.
Downtown has grown and improved much even in the short 6 years that I have been here. Brand new, world class bars and restaurants. Old ones brought back to life or given a new life. New retailers aiming to turn Woodward into the next Rodeo. All the while, the train station would remain a symbolic vestige of the fall of Detroit. Despite the area around it (Corktown) also developing and becoming a hot spot for distilleries, bars / cocktail lounges, and restaurants, the train station loomed over everything. It reminded people that we have come far, but we are not out of the woods yet.
A couple years ago, when windows starting going in, there was a huge stir in gossip and articles about what was happening? Is it finally being renovated? After a lot of investigative journaling, it turned out to be part of a deal with the city for additional land, but the renovations virtually stopped at windows. Either way, the significance of putting windows on the train station could not be understated. It injected life and energy into the city. A belief that ANYTHING, no matter how far gone, could be restored. It was a city-wide deep sigh of relief.
This new development will bring gentrification that may turn off some long-time proponents of the neighborhood, but it will be good for the area nonetheless. Businesses that may be on the border will see an influx of foot traffic, not only from local workers / residents, but also from tourists coming to see the eighth wonder of the world! An area that has suffered lately from petty crime may see increased police presence. I haven’t spoken yet to the people we know at business such as Takoi, Two James, Gold Cash Gold, Mercury Bar, Slows, Sugar House, Nemo’s, or PJ’s, but based on some of the Instagram coverage, I get the feeling they woke up a little more excited this week.
So I invite any skeptics to come spend some time here. Interact with the locals, in the burbs, in the city, and especially Corktown itself. You will have a better understanding of why it is not just another building acquisition for Ford’s PR group. And I am certain you will feel the jolt of energy that this news has brought to the city is not manufactured.