MICHauto > Blog > MICHauto in the News > Michigan Central About to Open, but What Will Be Inside?

Michigan Central About to Open, but What Will Be Inside?

April 23, 2024

The Detroit News
Sarah Rahal and Breana Noble
April 21, 2024

Less than seven weeks before the opening of a renovated Michigan Central Station, it’s unclear to the public what owner Ford Motor Co.’s footprint will be there. Or whether zoning changes will be approved for a hotel to top its 18-story tower. Or which retailers will grace the former train station’s concourse under its vaulted ceilings.

What is clear is the 30-acre Corktown mobility innovation hub anchored by the station still anticipates one day being home to 5,000 tax-paying jobs, as Ford promised in 2018. Half are expected to come from the Dearborn automaker’s advanced technology teams and the rest from startups and suppliers. Fulfilling the vision, though, is likely to take years, according to the project’s leaders, who promise more details will be shared in June.

“We’re on our way (on job creation),” said Joshua Sirefman, CEO of Michigan Central Innovation District LLC, the wholly owned subsidiary of Ford charged with running the Corktown campus. “We’re hard at work to achieve these things.”

Ford declined for this story to specify exactly how many and which employees from which functions it’ll have at the station. Potentially, it could be home to one of Ford’s three business divisions, two sources familiar with the situation told The Detroit News. The company already has 400 employees in Corktown from its Ford Pro commercial vehicle division. And it’s had a presence at The Factory building at Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard since 2018.

Thirty-six years after the last train left the station, the once-derelict symbol of Detroit’s decline will open to the public on June 6. Leaders are still keeping many details under wraps as if they’re revealing a new car, but the public can expect an open house of tours, events and art installations similar to 2018 when 40,000 visitors waited to see the vacant 1913-built rail stop before extensive renovations began.

“Ford’s commitment to establishing a significant presence at Michigan Central Station has not changed,” spokesperson Ian Thibodeau said in a statement. “In June, Michigan Central and Ford will welcome the public into the station in celebration of the historic restoration of the iconic ground floor. We look forward to sharing more details about the next chapter of the station in June including tenants, public amenities and more.”

Ford has said the project will cost $950 million for the Corktown campus, but it wouldn’t say how much has been spent restoring the 500,000-square-foot train station. Over the last six years, 3,100 workers put in more than 1.7 million hours into its construction. Although restoration will be complete in time for the open house in June, the station won’t immediately be the buzzing center of shops, restaurants, Ford employees at work and overnight visitors.

Like the evolution of Hudson Yards in New York City and Navy Pier in Chicago, the Michigan Central developments are expected to come in phases through 2028 — even as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the station’s opening from 2022, and along with it came a revolution in how and where people work. More recently, the auto industry has realized a bumpier timeline than previously expected in the adoption of electric vehicles as well as the deployment of self-driving cars.

Still, Ford is expected to occupy several floors in the station’s tower, according to two sources familiar with the situation. There are plans for a still-to-be-named hotel to occupy the top three stories. Other businesses will have some tie into advanced tech, electrification or mobility.

Restaurants and shops on the ground floor are being curated by Roslyn Karamoko, founder of Detroit Is The New Black apparel brand. Art installations will pay homage to the station’s history, and there’ll be space for public gatherings and live music performances on its campus. There’s also potential for the return of passenger rail service nearby.

The zoning for a hotel and retail district has yet to be approved by the Detroit City Council. Still, the station is chugging full steam ahead with its opening, Sirefman said, when more details will be shared.

The station built for the Michigan Central Railroad replaced the original depot in downtown Detroit after a major fire in December 1913. It was the world’s tallest rail station at the time. It remained open for business until the cessation of Amtrak service in 1988, exchanging hands multiple times with various plans suggested for the site.

In 2018, Ford acquired the station and several nearby buildings for $90 million from the Moroun family, the billionaire owners of the Ambassador Bridge. With the state approving tax breaks at the time estimated at $207 million, there was the promise of a revitalization of the shuttered icon.

Michigan Economic Development Corp. staff said at the time that the automaker had until the end of 2028 for the other 2,500 workers from Ford partners and suppliers to establish a presence on the campus. The Renaissance Zone designation that grants the project 30-year tax breaks on certain real and personal property taxes is contingent on capital investment, not job creation, according to the MEDC.

A glimpse at this future is already embodied in the rebuild of the next-door Book Depository, now a location of New Lab LLC that does business as Newlab, which opened a year ago. There, 93 startups are mingling with each other and 20 venture capitalists, representing close to 600 people and more than $1.7 billion in assets under its management.

Today, programming for the station is further along than expected, said Sirefman, who joined the project two years ago. “We can get there in a few years,” he said about reaching 80% occupancy in the tower.

Ford won’t be the first tenant in the station. Alphabet Inc.’s Google Code Next program that teaches computer science to Black, Latino and Native American high school students will open a lab there, the program’s first physical space in the Midwest. The company also has partnered with the MADE Institute to offer a career certification in cybersecurity, data analytics and information technology support.

“We will figure out over time the balance between something food and beverage. Is it retail?” Sirefman said about filling the ground-floor space. “We have to figure out how to be creative and thoughtful about the interplay between all these things. This will be a mix of uses and activities. I cannot think of another building here in too many places that have that sort of range of activity. And the goal is to make it extraordinary, but it will be deliberative.”

What is Michigan Central’s open platform?

Michigan Central Innovation District itself is an entity with about 30 employees, including native Detroiters and others from North American tech hubs. Its leaders foresee a place for collaboration never seen before in the region.

“It had to be the place where the future of transportation was reinvented one more time and that the Motor City became the Motor City again,” Bill Ford, the automaker’s executive chairman, said this week at the Detroit Free Press’ Breakfast Club Series. “We’re in a war for talent. Michigan is. Our industry is. Ford is.

“And part of that is giving people amazing problems to solve, and also amazing places to work,” he continued. “Because it’s hard to attract people from the East Coast, and it’s even harder to attract people from the West Coast. And so, if you give them some nondescript building in the suburbs to work in, that’s a tough sell. And we need the best and the brightest. Any company is only as good as its people. So, we then bought the train station.”

Michigan Central’s “open platform” even stretches to Ford rivals General Motors Co. and Stellantis NV. The companies said they’ve worked with Newlab and the startups that call it home. A consortium of 70 partners also seeks to grow local entrepreneurship and economic development.

“It’s not an easy thing to communicate, because it’s sort of counter to what people expect,” Sirefman told The News about the approach. “We do try to communicate that we are an open platform because we don’t want there to be constraints on people. It’s a different model. If you thread back to Bill Ford’s vision, it’s such an interesting path from that then to: How do you actually build and implement that? You’re asking questions, because you’re looking for the traditional definition, and we’re not that.”

From the start, Bill Ford insisted the company’s iconic Blue Oval wouldn’t grace the façade of the building. The automaker didn’t want to be isolated or take over the neighborhood. Even still, fostering cross-industry and competitive collaboration could be a lift, but it’s not about convincing anyone, Sirefman said. It’s about creating the conditions for partnership to make sense around the future of automobility, alternative energy and related fields.

“We have an arms-length relationship — funded by private dollars,” Sirefman said, “but what is the long term … is what we’re trying to figure out. We hope to be self-sufficient in funding.”

In addition to the Ford subsidiary, it has a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called the Michigan Central Center for Mobility and Society.

Glenn Stevens Jr. — executive director of MICHauto, the mobility arm of the Detroit Regional Chamber — said the Corktown campus has the ingredients to attract the high-tech talent needed for the region and Michigan to grow and continue its leadership in the transportation industry. Combined with efforts underway at Wayne State University’s TechTown entrepreneurship hub and the forthcoming University of Michigan Center for Innovation, Detroit is increasingly becoming a unique haven of automobility.

“Anytime you see restrictions or logos on a building, it’s exclusionary for one reason or another because of competition or something else,” Stevens said. “Detroit has to be a leader. If we do this together, we have a heck of a lot better chance at success.”

TechTown and Invest Detroit are communicating with Michigan Central on how to best partner for the growth of its “ecosystem,” two sources familiar with the details told The News.

Sirefman is a University of Michigan graduate who formerly worked for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and other economic development initiatives in the city. He returned in 2022 for this project from New York City, where he worked in economic development in Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s administration, project development at real estate firm Brookfield Properties and his own firm, and co-founded Sidewalk Labs, an affiliate of Google focused on urban planning.

Now, his focus is the Corktown project, and he’s got big ambitions for it.

“I think Michigan Central is going to be seen as one of those vibrant centers of the city both for the work that can be done here and for the place itself that defies expectations,” Sirefman said, adding about his team: “My hope is in 5-10 years, it is viewed as the most effective organization in the world in creating an unprecedented model for economic development.”

More than a station

Already, innovators are seeing the value of the Newlab hub, which opened one year ago. It’s a scene of entrepreneurs grabbing an open desk, riding e-bikes to Rocco’s Italian Deli for a meeting with a venture capitalist and testing on 14th Street the country’s first roadway with inductive charging for EVs. Entrepreneurs take advantage of Black Tech Saturdays, a community network to help locals succeed.

Bloom — a vertical integration consultant focused on helping shared mobility, e-bike companies and other micro-mobility businesses with domestic manufacturing, supply-chain bottlenecks and delivery networks — moved into Newlab in August and soon is closing its second round of funding in less than a year. Co-founder Justin Kosmides had experience at another company at Newlab in Brooklyn, New York, as the place all hardware startups went.

“Starting Bloom here, it made the most sense to be located out of here,” Kosmides said about the Book Depository location. “I’m trying to convince all of my friends to move here. We’re at the moment of a renaissance. It’s hard not to when you have the money, energy, all the incredible people being concentrated in one place here. That is something special.”

Highlights over the last year include startups like the Veggie Express. Produced by Newlab in Michigan Central and modified by GoodPluck, it’s a startup aiming to bring fresh produce to food-scarce neighborhoods.

David Medina came to Detroit to attend the College for Creative Studies from his native Mexico 16 years ago. Now he’s pursuing the dream he envisioned at 9 years old as CEO of Livaq, which is seeking to be the new standard of electric all-terrain vehicles.

“We work until 2 a.m. sometimes,” Medina said about his company that is working toward pre-production from prototyping. “You can tell the difference being alone in your office/mancave rather than being here, having entrepreneurs who are working with you that are striving toward the same goal, having that community that stays with you and helps with the pain points and everything.”

Other projects they’re doing

Michigan Central also has partnered with the Michigan Transportation Department for the ability to conduct drone testing. The Advanced Aerial Innovation Region is a first-of-its-kind urban airspace test zone that will position Michigan as a leader of the industry, which is expected to top $50 billion by 2030, in the port of Monroe, said Chief Operating Officer Carolina Pluszczynski.

In the station, there will be drop-in space for 10 nonprofit groups serving Detroit-area youth that are part of a $10 million campaign led by Bill Ford and his wife, Lisa, to establish permanent endowments for the organizations in partnership with the Children’s Foundation.

Michigan Central is also conducting two research studies — one with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study equity in EV charging infrastructure and another with the University of Michigan on the impact of aerial mobility on communities, which is expected to come out later this year.

The team additionally highlighted its work with DTE Energy Co. and Pearl Edison to make federal rebates easy for low-income residents.

Michigan Central last year received a $2 million Knight Foundation grant focused on building art and innovation collaboration. Through this, it’s hired two leaders — Lauren Ruffin and Kelly Kivland. Their work will include live performances and interactive augmented reality experiences. First programming will be unveiled this summer.

The public art offerings are expected to attract outside visitors with programming that includes talks, summits, residencies, workshops and research focusing on “creative applications of technology.”

“Detroit has a legacy as a place of creativity, art and innovation,” said Ruffin, director and lead strategist of the art program. “Our work with the community will not only be for Detroiters but built with them, ensuring their pride and ideas about the future are reflected.”

A future in Corktown

Sirefman promises a first-of-its-kind campus that impacts the region beyond the Corktown neighborhood.

“I think you’re seeing Detroit’s regional mobility start to change,” he said. “I hope in five or 10 years, our sort of emergence as an anchor institution … it’s sort of an understood part of the universe here and that we’re helping drive this collaboration.”

The campus reactivation is expected to bring new life to Detroit’s oldest historic neighborhood that still has stretches of brick roads. That’s why married couple David Shock and Miranda Clark invested in the former location of Detroit Institute of Bagels to open James Oliver Coffee in 2021. They hope business only grows once the campus reopens. Newlab already serves their coffee.

“I think there’s room for everyone. However, we moved in this neighborhood because we knew this would be an important flagship for our coffee brand,” said Shock, 47. “We didn’t know at the time everything the train station would bring in. It’s hard to tell if it has made a difference so far.”

Shock recalled the city’s rolling blackouts in 2005 and when Slows BBQ opened across Michigan Avenue from the train station, calling it “a risky move” at a time when people saw the station as haunted. Now, he points to two more coffee shops opening, “banking on Corktown being the hot, new neighborhood.”

“We hope people will just come into the office and that the walkability extends this far,” he said. “I like the way Corktown is right now, where we can finish up work, walk to Nemo’s and watch the funny interaction with the fancy schmancy hotel across the street … as long as places like Nemo’s can stick around and institutions are still here … not like what happened to Ferndale or Royal Oak.

“We don’t want Corktown to get homogenized and all these outside brands try to move in,” he said. “It still gotta keep its Detroitish roots.”