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Ford's Corktown Play

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

Ford Motor is planning a big party on Tuesday. It’ll be at the Michigan Central Depot, that gap-toothed hulk looming over Detroit empty and rotting for thirty years.

But not anymore, once Ford’s plans for what it’s calling a campus in Corktown become more clear.

Here’s what you need to know: Detroit’s oldest neighborhood could be transformed by Ford’s plans. The automaker wants to anchor its next-generation mobility, autonomy and electrification work in the 105-year-old train station.

This is huge, people. Detroit hasn’t seen a business move this big in eight years. That’s when Dan Gilbert moved his Quicken Loans headquarters to the city and followed with a downtown real estate buying spree.

This may be even bigger because it’s eight years later. Because Quicken blossomed into a major corporate presence downtown. Because Ford’s presence is likely to turbo-charge redevelopment of a neighborhood … and set the example for more.

Credit Anthony Brown
Michigan Central Station June 2018

This should begin to answer the demand for fresh investment in the city’s neighborhood to claim a place for Detroit to help shape the auto industry’s second, tech-driven century.

The purchase of the historic Detroit train station is making a statement. It’s aiming to attract a new generation of workers who expect to live where they work.

And it’s beginning to answer one of Detroit’s biggest needs, growth. More tax-paying jobs in the city mean more revenue. More people mean more demand for services and small business. More business means more people – a virtuous circle that can pave Detroit’s road back to normalcy.

That’s not all. Ford’s move into Corktown would be yet another migration of jobs and capital into the city from the suburbs. And that signals something else skeptics thought they’d never see,  sustainability, the sense that the city’s economic cycle is gaining traction, that hope is giving way to experience, that hard numbers are starting to pencil for business people who aren’t in the charity business.

They’re in business.

And the human capital needs of business are changing because human capital is changing. Millennials don’t want to be chained to a desk and phone because they don’t need that to be effective. They don’t want to work in boring suburban offices when they can walk beneath 55-foot vaulted ceilings inside a historic landmark.

An automotive tech hub in Corktown, anchored by Ford’s mobility efforts, would be a linchpin in a corridor stretching from downtown Detroit to Ann Arbor. From mobility makers in Detroit, past an airport with global reach, to the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, all the way to top-flight research at the University of Michigan.

The assets are here and things are starting to fall into place. None of this is an accident. It takes leaders more focused on the possible than the impossible, on the positive, not the negative.

But it takes vision to see it all.

I’m Daniel Howes of The Detroit News.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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