The Detroit Train Station: The New / Old Obsession

Opinion: Louis Aguilar

Detroitisit sat down with Louis Aguilar of The Detroit News to talk about the news that Ford Motor Company may or may not be thinking of moving part of their operations into the old Michigan Central Station in Corktown.

Detroitisit: Is this a momentous moment for Detroit? How so?

Louis Aguilar: The 2010’s will be the decade that billionaires decided that reviving the heart of Detroit is the best way to protect their interests. Some of it is civic pride. They also desire the street cred that Detroit can provide so that these companies can lure talented millennials who crave urbanness and authenticity – whatever authentic means (historic stuff and walkable neighborhoods?)

Dan Gilbert has spent $2 billion and counting to revive historic downtown buildings and now is constructing new things, like the city’s tallest skyscraper, to do this.

The Ilitch family says they will spend at least $2 billion in building the Little Caesars Arena plus all the new stores, offices and residences they contend will sprout up around the arena.

And now the Ford family, one of the original billionaire families in America, apparently wants to stake some of its future on reviving one of the most infamous symbols of Detroit ruin porn. It’s far from a done deal, but if it happens, it could equal in impact and possible investment that anything Gilbert and Ilitch may do.

DII: Who do you think this move will impact the most?

LA: Corktown and Southwest residents and landowners to be sure, but, this is a global business we are talking about. The auto industry likes to say that one auto job creates eight other jobs in the community – some of those are suppliers to the automaker, but some of those jobs are everything from, say, a clerk at the hotel seeing more guests in town to do business with Ford, to maybe another dentist to help serve all the new employees with health care.

DII: If Ford and its autonomous division is moving to Detroit to seemingly takeover Corktown, where do you think that places Detroit on the autonomous map? What does that say about the city itself? Did Ford just do the city a big favor as it looks to a “smart” future?

LA: I don’t think Ford would say it’s taking over Corktown, but, somehow would be a major contributor to a fine historic community with young entrepreneurs – that kind of thing. Corktown is doing fine without Ford. Again, Ford needs Detroit and Corktown’s street cred.

For most of the last decade the economic engines driving Corktown have been hand-crafted cocktails, restaurants using locally grown ingredients, funky independent stores, and restored homes and brick buildings dating to the late-1800s. That’s the kind of “authentic” thing the corporate American craves.

Imagine the publicity Ford will get if they can say they revived one of the most famous symbols of blight in Detroit.

DII: Do you think this move by Ford to take shape in the heart of downtown in Corktown, to move its autonomous division there, will that help light a fire behind the other Big Two (Detroit automakers) in terms of shaping a “smarter” future?

LA: About a week ago, GM said it would spend $100 million to start mass-producing its self-driving electric Chevy Bolt at its Orion Township and Brownstown plants. But the Italian CEO of Fiat Chrysler says he’s still doubtful that electric and autonomous vehicles are the future, or something to that effect. He said earlier this year that electric vehicles may be hurtful to the planet. So, who knows?

DII: By aligning themselves with Corktown, is this a move on Ford’s part to become more enticing to millennials who want to work in trendy, walkable areas? How is this playing out with the brand at large?

LA: Ford is competing with the likes of Amazon and Apple and Tesla for its workers. Look at the HQ’s that Amazon and Apple and Google built. Ask yourself, will reviving the train station be just as cool as what any of those other companies have built?

DII: Discuss your “canary in the coal mine” theory of Corktown and other quickly developing neighborhoods?

LA: It’s a well-established pattern. A stable blue-collar neighborhood kept alive by a diverse group of homeowners and stubborn small business owners. Eventually that attracts artists and the adventurous young. Soon the hip restaurant, the eclectic bar, pops up. This lures even more investors-this time from people and entities not from the area but can sense the new energy and opportunities. Lots of media attention. Guess what comes after that?