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Ford plots its future in a relic of Detroit’s past

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Renderings of the revitalized Michigan Central Station in Detroit show the exterior, market hall, below left, and main hall, below right. Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford want the ambitious project to become a magnet for top talent — and “a really fun destination for people.”

DETROIT — Bill Ford was a child the first time he stepped through a bronze door into the marble-floored concourse of Michigan Central Station. The Fords were catching a train to California, and Bill was awestruck by the sea of travelers passing under the cavernous lobby’s high arches and ornate chandeliers.

“I remember walking in, just taking a look and going, “Wow,” he said.

Decades later, as the towering depot sat derelict and crumbling, it evoked a much different emotion.

“I’ve seen Detroit at its best and at its worst,” Ford, 61, said, “and one thing I hated was when the national media was writing about the decay of Detroit, the poster child for that was always the train station. That always really bothered me, because I remembered as a young boy when it was amazing. They kept using that as a metaphor for what happened in Detroit.”

“What if? Is this fantasy?” Bill Ford once asked himself while driving by the station. Now, it is the centerpiece of his vision for Ford and Detroit’s future.

Now, he’s making Michigan Central a metaphor for what his company, and the city where his great-grandfather started it, could become. The automaker last week confirmed its purchase of the 1913 depot, which has marred Detroit’s skyline since even before the first Ford Explorer arrived almost 30 years ago.

Ford Motor plans to use the 18-story building to anchor a one-of-a-kind research and engineering campus in Detroit, where it envisions having thousands of workers developing autonomous and electric vehicles. It’s paying for the project using money earmarked to overhaul its offices, and with the help of substantial tax incentives. Renovating the depot is estimated to take about four years.

Ford plans to put around 2,500 employees into the depot and surrounding properties — it’s amassing space for up to 5,000 people — and envisions using autonomous shuttles to ferry workers between the campus in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood and nearby cities such as Dearborn, the home of Ford’s headquarters.

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“We’re in a war for talent,” Bill Ford said in an interview with Automotive News and affiliate Crain’s Detroit Business. “And there will be no place in the country that anybody will be able to work that’s a place like that. It’s a very important branding thing for Ford. It’s also important in terms of our intent. We wouldn’t have done it if the cost didn’t make sense.”

Community destination

Ford Motor hopes the train station will be more attractive to in-demand talent than the cookie-cutter campuses of Silicon Valley or isolated suburban office parks. The company intends to rehabilitate the decrepit concourse into a community gathering spot that’s open to the public — akin to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, complete with restaurants and retail. Ford workers could be joined by supplier partners or software startups in the office space. And the company said it’s considering residential space, potentially putting condos on the top floors.

“I want this to be, and believe it will be, a really fun destination for people — both Detroiters and people coming in from outside of Detroit,” Ford said. “It would be great if this was one of their first stops. It would be a great place to meet friends and family and then go from there.”

In addition to the train station, Ford bought a nearby low-rise building and plans to acquire other properties to create a campus totaling roughly 1.2 million square feet. Of that, Ford said three-quarters will be split equally among Ford and its partners, with the rest a mix of retail and residential space.

Crain’s Detroit Business has reported Ford is working to buy nearly 50 total properties in Corktown, many of which are empty lots and abandoned buildings.

Bill Ford declined to divulge a price for the train station or how much it will cost to repair. (Its previous owner spent $8 million to replace its 1,100 broken windows and put in a freight elevator.) He said the project is being absorbed by an undisclosed amount of money the automaker set aside in 2016 to transform its Dearborn campus. Ford said the Dearborn renovation, which outside experts have estimated to cost $1.2 billion, will continue and the company’s headquarters will remain in Dearborn, seven miles west.

“We’re spending no extra money than we already had in our forward budget,” he said.

Business case

Some, including Ford shareholders, have questioned the business case for such a costly project while CEO Jim Hackett orders billions of dollars in cuts to improve the company’s “operational fitness.” Bill Ford said he thinks the effort will be well worth it.

Bill Ford: “It won’t just be a stand-alone, very beautiful building. It will very much be part of the fabric of the new transportation model. And our future at Ford will be largely invented there.”

“We are again reinventing the future of transportation, just as we did 115 years ago,” he said at his office in the automaker’s 1950s-era headquarters known as the Glass House. “And that, to me, is going to be the power of this building. It won’t just be a stand-alone, very beautiful building. It will very much be part of the fabric of the new transportation model. And our future at Ford will be largely invented there.”

‘What if?’

Bill Ford first thought of buying the train station in 2017 as he was driving scouting out the Factory — a newly renovated brick building near the depot that now houses about 200 workers on Ford’s electrified and autonomous vehicle teams.

“I’d always had this vision that we would build the future of Ford Motor Co., particularly as it pertained to autonomy, in a city setting — because that’s where these vehicles will be deployed and that’s where we need to really try them out,” he said. “And so, I would drive by the train station and I started asking myself: ‘What if? Is this fantasy?’ ”

It wasn’t. Negotiations between Ford’s real-estate arm and the depot’s owner began in October and went smoothly, he said.

The train station marks Bill Ford’s third high-profile real-estate project in the region, following extensive renovations of Ford’s historic Rouge complex and construction of Ford Field, a football stadium that brought the Detroit Lions back downtown after 27 years in suburban Pontiac.

“This dwarfs them all, in my opinion, because of what it means for the future,” Bill Ford said. “The future of mobility should be created in Detroit — and I believe it will be.”

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