Ford Buying Train Station Is Turning Point In Detroit's Renaissance

It’s a stop-the-presses moment. I had another column in the works for today, but the news that Ford Motor Co. is buying Detroit’s abandoned behemoth of a train station makes it worth shifting gears. 

There have been rumors going back several months that a deal could be in the works. At the Ford holiday gathering just up the street at another new Ford facility in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood in December, I remarked to a Ford PR executive that it would be monumental if Ford would buy the Michigan Central Depot. I’m sure talks were already happening, but like any good PR person, she revealed nothing. 

As an 18-year Detroit resident, I’m not alone in expressing surprise that the long-suffering 105-year-old building is finally going to get a new life. It’s a stunning building even in decay, and the fact that Ford is willing to bring it back to its glory is a statement that recognizes the continued turnaround the city is experiencing. 

It reminds me of the faith that Little Caesars pizza baron Mike Ilitch showed in the city in 1987 when he invested $12 million in restoring the Fox Theatre, an 18-month restoration of a building that was in a similar state of decay. It was a fortuitous venture since the theatre is now the center of a vibrant sports and entertainment district that includes three sports and concert venues. 

It’s likely Ford Chairman Bill Ford and his family have a similar vision for the Corktown neighborhood which the train station anchors. The building has been a symbol of Detroit’s decline and the subject of numerous “ruin porn” photographs. For a time, it was considered sport to break into the building to explore and take pictures. I was never that brave, but some of my friends were and they report that even in decay, the building and its notable architecture is breathtaking. 

Ford will reveal plans for the train station on June 19 in a community celebration at the train station. I’m excited to finally get inside of it. The Beaux-Arts Classical building was designed by the same firm that designed New York’s Grand Central Station. Both were designed to have office towers in their original design concept. The 18-story office tower in Detroit with a roof height of 230 feet was the tallest rail station in the world at the time of its construction in 1913.

Although its headquarters have long been in nearby Dearborn, it’s not a stretch for Ford to return to the city. In the 1920s Henry Ford bought land near the station and made construction plans, but they fell victim to the Great Depression. 

Bill Ford shared with media at the Ford holiday party his feelings about the city: “Returning to Detroit is particularly meaningful because it is where my great-grandfather originally set out to pursue his passion and where we have always called our home,” Ford said in December. “We are planting a special piece of our company’s future in one of the city’s great neighborhoods, because we believe in Detroit, its people and what we can build together.”

It’s a smart move for Ford for many reasons. Young tech-focused professionals have gravitated to the city from around the country, and having a downtown location will make Ford very attractive as an employer.  

That’s the surface benefit, but there could be an even more widespread effect. There have been multiple studies that indicate Millennials expect companies to do good and they often base their purchases on companies they feel good about.

“If they restore it sensitively and make it environmentally up to date, it could be a huge boost in their image as a company genuinely interested in sustainability,” says Ian Beavis, chief strategy officer for AMCI Global based in Los Angeles. AMCI is a leading global agency that transforms the way people perceive and interact with automotive brands.

The purchase price of the train station was not disclosed, but the restoration costs are likely to be a much higher number. Estimates range widely from $100 million to $300 million.

It’s a perfect opportunity for Ford to put some of the green practices it supports into the reconstruction. Tesla showed off a green building with eco-sensitive technology at the Los Angeles Auto Show last year and consumers flocked to it and the media wrote about it. Ford can certainly make a very large green statement of its own with this venture. 

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