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Detroit's Central Station to house "innovation district" with city, state, Ford partnership

Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the press conference announcing the Michigan Central Innovation District at the historic former Detroit train station.
State of Michigan
Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the press conference announcing the Michigan Central Innovation District at the historic former Detroit train station.

The former Michigan Central train station in Detroit will be the centerpiece of a new innovation district, state, local, and Ford motor company officials announced on Friday.

The Michigan Central Innovation District was touted as a joint effort between the public sector and the automaker, as well as other private-sector partners including Google.

Ford has been renovating the enormous former train station, which had been an iconic emblem of Detroit blight since it closed in 1988. The automaker said it plans to use the space as a company campus for some employees, but also as a larger hub for experimenting with new mobility technologies.

Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford said it goes far beyond a company hub, calling it “the ultimate public-private partnership.”

“We couldn’t do it alone,” Ford said. “This was not going to be a Ford campus. This is going to be a campus where entrepreneurs, big and small, would come here and really help develop the future.”

According to a state press release, the district “will serve as a globally recognized hub for talent, mobility innovation, entrepreneurship, sustainability, affordable housing, small business opportunities and community engagement.” A memorandum of understanding between Ford, the state and the city of Detroit has several “pillars,” which include economic development, workforce development in the form of job training and educational programs, and community development in the surrounding Corktown neighborhood.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer said the district will help put Michigan front and center in the race for new corporate and venture capital investments in the fast-changing transportation sector. “This new district will significantly impact the way that people move,” she said. “The way that goods and services move over the decades to come.”

Several state agencies will be involved in innovation district projects, adding up to $126 million in investments. Those include a collaboration with Ontario and others to explore creating commercial drone-testing corridors, and the creation of a public wireless electric vehicle charging system.

The city of Detroit said it will pitch in by clearing the way for a “transportation innovation zone” that will be a testing ground for new technologies.

Bill Ford said he’s hopeful that the district will attract a number of start-up companies. But so far, the premiere partner company is Google, whose Chief Financial Officer, Ruth Porat, said the tech giant plans to use the space for job training programs, and to train high school students in computer science. But there’s also a healthy dose of self-interest.

“We view this as a home where we can leverage our Google cloud, data analytics, and A.I. to really explore what are the new opportunities for mobility,” she said. “Where can we go?”

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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