MICHauto > Blog > Can Michigan Central Depot be a ‘game-changer’ for state’s high-tech future? Some think so

Can Michigan Central Depot be a ‘game-changer’ for state’s high-tech future? Some think so

February 7, 2022
The Detroit News
Feb. 4, 2022
Jordyn Grzelewski

State and local government leaders and corporate executives on Friday cast the development of the former Michigan Central Depot into a mobility campus as a major piece of the effort to make Michigan competitive in a rapidly changing economy and automotive industry.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Mayor Mike Duggan, City Council President Mary Sheffield, Ford Executive Chair Bill Ford Jr., Ruth Porat of Google and other officials were on hand at the iconic former train station in Corktown — slated to open next year — to announce a public-private partnership Friday between the project, state and city, and Google’s involvement as a “founding member” of Michigan Central.

Government and project leaders touted the involvement of a technology giant and the infusion of additional state and city support as crucial to achieving the vision of Michigan Central as not just a real estate project, but a transformation of the area into an innovation hub featuring walkable neighborhoods, affordable housing, cutting-edge technology pilots and high-quality jobs.

“Google is signaling that Michigan is a high-tech innovation hub, where companies of all sizes should consider coming,” Whitmer said. “This is another sign that we are moving forward in a way that shows Michigan is in it to win, that we are going to lead the mobility sector, that we are serious about developing high-tech and high-skill jobs, and our future is bright.”

Ford bought the long-abandoned train station in 2018, embarking on what is now a nearly $1 billion development project that includes offices, retail, hospitality, public gathering places, green spaces and other features across a 30-acre district. On Friday, Bill Ford Jr. recalled what the building used to represent: “I was sick and tired of driving by this building all the time and having this be the poster child for the decay of Detroit. … And we’re now very much in the process of turning this from a national punchline into a national treasure.”

But project leaders have said the development would have to go beyond rehabilitating an iconic building, and that it would not be a Ford campus, but a collaborative space where startups and other corporations would develop and pilot emerging mobility technologies. Bringing Google on board, Bill Ford said, is a “game-changer.”

Still, Ford executives see a clear benefit for the automaker’s business: namely, talent recruitment. The need to attract software and technology talent has become pressing for legacy automakers as they race to compete against Silicon Valley in the bid to lead the industry’s electrified, digital and autonomous future. That effort was underscored most recently by General Motors Co.’s announcement that it plans to hire 8,000 new technology employees this year.

“We knew that, if we’re going to attract the best and the brightest to our company and to our city, we needed to provide them a place that was inspiring,” Bill Ford said. “And I think when this is finished, you’ll find that this is going to be incredibly inspiring.”

Some of the state’s top government, business and economic development leaders hope such initiatives will help move the needle on economic and population growth — a need recently underscored by the news that deaths exceeded births in Michigan in 2020.

“Talent and innovation districts and communities where people want to live and work, those combinations are what’s going to drive economic growth in Michigan and Detroit,” said Glenn Stevens, vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives for the Detroit Regional Chamber and executive director of MICHauto, a chamber initiative that focuses on those issues. “You find all those pieces there.”

Officials on Friday announced that the state would be aligning $126 million in new and existing programs and resources to support Michigan Central.

Those funds will support construction of affordable housing, Michigan Avenue planning and reconstruction near the site, workforce training and other initiatives, with the remaining funding commitments slated to be finalized in the coming weeks, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

And the city plans to establish a “Transportation Innovation Zone” within the district that would fast-track the permitting process for companies to test mobility projects there.

“Every time an inventor has an idea in mobility, we are going to vet it and find the safest, most prompt way for them to try it out,” Duggan said. “If you have an idea to change mobility in the world, this area right here on Michigan Avenue is where you can make your dreams come true.”

For its part, Google already has offices in Detroit and Ann Arbor, and its self-driving affiliate Waymo LLC has a plant in the city. The technology company’s involvement in Michigan Central so far includes plans to open a new Code Next Lab there to teach computer science to high school students. The company also is partnering with local nonprofits to offer a career certification designed to equip participants with skills for in-demand fields, a certification Ford has agreed to recognize.

Google, which already is Ford’s preferred cloud provider, also will provide cloud computing technology for Michigan Central.

“The fact that Ford has resurrected this landmark and that they’re now successfully landing anchor tenants in it is a big positive sign for, not only technology in Detroit, but business in Detroit,” said Patrick Anderson, founder and CEO of  Anderson Economic Group. “The scale, to the extent we know, of Google’s investment at this point is relatively modest. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a positive step and a reinforcement that this once-a-landmark building could be a landmark again.”

Google has not committed to taking over office space or having employees based at the campus.

Asked about the potential for Google’s involvement with Michigan Central to expand in the future, Porat, a senior vice president and chief financial officer at Google and parent company Alphabet, said: “I think that this is going to be a hub for research on all sorts of things that we can’t even envision as we sit here today, and I think we’d like to continue to build out the partnership and have others come in. And we’d all like to be involved and see successes come out of here.”

Michigan Central is just one example of efforts within Detroit to build out innovation districts. Other examples include Midtown, the planned Detroit District between Midtown and downtown, where companies like Rocket Companies, Ally Financial and Microsoft serve as anchors, Britany Affolter-Caine, executive director of Michigan’s University Research Corridor and a director on the Michigan Strategic Fund Board, and Bruce Katz, founding director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab at Drexel University, recently noted in Crain’s Detroit Business.

“There’s probably nothing more important than Michigan building the competency of its people, with regards to tech talent and digital skills,” Stevens said. “The ability to do that is literally make-or-break for us as we look into the future.”

The state’s manufacturing foundation remains important, he said: “But if we’re going to raise real median income and quality of life, it’s going to be with jobs that have higher compensation and offer long-term opportunity for people to grow in the knowledge-based economy. And that’s where Michigan has to move, and Michigan Central is a perfect example of that.”

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