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University of Michigan to "anchor" Detroit innovation center with gifts from Ross, Gilbert

A rendering of the proposed Detroit Center for Innovation.

A new University of Michigan facility will be at the heart of a new development on the edge of downtown Detroit, thanks to expected contributions from two billionaire donors.

The proposed Detroit Center for Innovation will be home to a $300 million university outpost for teaching and research in emerging high-tech fields like cybersecurity, mobility and artificial intelligence, said University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel.

“The opportunity to anchor an innovation center in Detroit seems like a great fit for the university. It’s a place where we can do teaching and research, while at the same time purposefully helping stimulate the Detroit and regional economy,” Schlissel says.

Schlissel says the center will offer advanced undergraduate, graduate-level courses and certificates “in close collaboration with the entrepreneurial and business communities in the city.” He says the idea is to “provide a pipeline of employees that are trained in technology, business, [and] entrepreneurship.”

“Having a site in downtown Detroit will set us up well for collaborative research,” Schlissel says. “Michigan students and faculty can help work on research problems that lead to intellectual property, or that help companies become more valuable.”

Schlissel says Stephen Ross approached him with the idea about a year ago. Ross is the billionaire real estate magnate and Detroit native who’s also a U of M alumni and mega-donor.

Schlissel declined to specify the amount of Ross’s expected gift to finance the innovation center, saying only that “the academic building and the land will be gifted to the university.”

The land will come from Detroit billionaire business mogul Dan Gilbert, who owns the 14-acre property where the Center for Innovation will be located. It’s the site of the now-defunct former Wayne County Jail project. Gilbert helped orchestrate a complicated land swapwith Wayne County and the city of Detroit to get the property, which he got in return for building a new jail and criminal justice complex for Wayne County on another, nearby site.

Matt Cullen is CEO of Bedrock Detroit, the real estate arm of Gilbert’s “family of companies.” He says Ross also reached out to Gilbert and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan about the project, which is also supposed to include “incubator and start up services for entrepreneurs, collaboration space for established companies, residential units, a hotel and conference center and event space,” according to a press release.

“This really is a gateway project; a physical hub and physical gateway to the city,” Cullen says. “You put those characteristics together, and it was clearly the right site for this.”

Cullen acknowledges there’s still a “lot of work to be done”—putting together a site plan, budgeting, obtaining governmental approvals, and nailing down other philanthropic partners for the project. By Detroit city ordinance, that process will also include putting together a community benefits agreement, a requirement for large projects that involve public subsidies.

But Cullen says a projected 2021 groundbreaking is doable. “When you work with folks like Stephen Ross and Dan Gilbert, the pace is always a quick one,” he says. “So we’re confident we’ll be moving along expeditiously.”

A formal announcement involving Schlissel, Ross, Cullen, Duggan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans is set for Wednesday morning.

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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