DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. wants to convert an infamous symbol of Detroit's long, sad decline — a rotting train station that towers over the city's oldest neighborhood — into a beacon for the automaker's efforts to prosper in the future.
Ford's board of directors this week is expected to consider a plan to buy the Michigan Central Station and rehabilitate it as the centerpiece of an urban campus that would help the company battle Silicon Valley for young, tech-minded talent to develop and build the self-driving vehicles of tomorrow. It would also give the Ford family a major role in the revival of the city where its automaking empire began 115 years ago.
Edsel Ford II, a Ford director and cousin of Executive Chairman Bill Ford, confirmed the plan last week, saying the automaker wants to "cluster" its autonomous and electric vehicle operations in one spot. Ford Motor is preparing to move 220 people into a renovated former hosiery factory several blocks from the train station and is nearing deals to buy almost 50 properties in the surrounding neighborhood, known as Corktown, according to Crain's Detroit Business, an affiliate of Automotive News. The 18-story train station alone is large enough to house at least 2,000 to 3,000 employees.
"Bill's excited about it, and I'm excited about it," Edsel Ford told Crain's last week, calling the plan a potential "big redevelopment of southwest Detroit."
On the surface, such a big, costly move seems at odds with the work Ford has begun to slash $25 billion in costs over the next five years. And it's even more peculiar considering Ford's leaders are just two years removed from touting a 10-year, $1 billion redesign of its headquarters and product development campus in suburban Dearborn.
But experts say that for young, in-demand talent weighing which company to join, the physical space where they would work is just as vital as the work they'd be doing.
"One way to compete is with sticks and bricks," said Ken Ashley, executive director at Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate services firm. "Younger workers are interested in creating impact. It feels good to work in a space that's historically significant."
Corktown — an area Bill Ford says he holds especially dear because its settlers emigrated from the same region of Ireland as his family's ancestors — fits that description.
In recent years, the neighborhood has had an influx of business development, including new bars, restaurants and mom-and-pop retail stores.
"Ten years ago, urban was decidedly uncool, and everybody wanted to be next to a golf course or a lake," Ashley said. "Today, being next to a cool coffee shop in an urban area where you can walk to everything is perhaps the most sought-after amenity."
Ford, which does its engineering and product development in a maze of 1950s-era buildings isolated by vast parking lots and human-made lakes, may be learning that the hard way.
In April 2016, the company unveiled plans to transform the Dearborn campus that were estimated to cost as much as $1.2 billion. Among the goals was to centralize more employees, doubling the number of people who worked there to about 24,000.
A second phase of the plan would include major renovations of the Ford World Headquarters complex, including Ford Motor Credit Co.
The master plan was finished, and construction was underway, but when CEO Jim Hackett replaced Mark Fields last May, a team of architects and designers was brought in to re-evaluate the plan, Crain's reported, citing two sources.
The train station, abandoned 30 years ago and largely exposed to the elements until new windows were installed in 2015, could cost hundreds of millions to renovate. Edsel Ford said the automaker's board doesn't necessarily need to formally vote on a deal, "but it requires buy-in."
While it's unclear how much of Ford's Dearborn plan would remain in place, the company now believes that housing its up-and-coming creative talent away from its headquarters could pay dividends.
"Our young people love ... living and working in urban areas," Bill Ford said in December, when the automaker revealed its plan to put 220 people in Corktown.
Ashley said locating its autonomous and EV teams away from Dearborn could help foster a "startup" culture.
"Physical separation sometimes gives you permission to think differently from the typical corporate approach," he said.
Sherif Marakby, Ford's vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, has said as much. He hopes the employees working on autonomous and electric vehicles, which Ford calls Team Edison, will act almost like a tech startup separate from the parent company.
And what he has said about the impending move of Team Edison into the former hosiery factory mirrors the reasons why Ford would want to acquire the train station and other properties.
"The reason I fell in love with the place as soon as I saw it is it really gives you that vibe of the heritage and the new coming together — and it really brings it to life," Marakby told Crain's in January. "We see being in Corktown as a big advantage. And it has actually, in many ways, increased the interest in working on the team — internally and externally."
Urvaksh Karkaria contributed to this report.