An icon of Detroit’s decay is now a symbol of the Motor City’s economic resurgence CNN Business


For more than 35 years, Michigan Central Station has lain dormant, towering over Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood as a stark and stoic reminder of the city’s economic pain.

The 18-story monolith, once the world’s tallest railway station, lay abandoned, its once opulent halls tattooed with graffiti, stripped of parts and left charred and broken.

Ronald Butler, who had a 20-year career with the Detroit Fire Department, recalled responding to fires there after it closed in 1988.

We have always been known as the busiest fire department in the country, Butler said. Many of these were from burning buildings by people having to evacuate a property or burn a property for insurance.

Michigan Central Train Station on December 17, 2008. The decades-long decline of the US auto industry has been sharply reflected in the Motor City's urban decay.

There was a sense of desperation, he added.

When Detroit became the largest municipality to file for bankruptcy in 2013, it had fallen far from its glory days in the early to mid-20th century, when Henry Ford’s arrival and the creation of the first assembly line in movement transformed the city into a manufacturing center and the automotive capital of the world.

Now, Michigan Central Station, the neighboring Old Book, and Butler itself are all symbols of hope for Detroit’s future and its continued economic revitalization.

Last year, the rehabilitated warehouse opened to house a thriving group of mobility and energy startups, including one led by Butler, who started Energy Storage Safety Products International, which makes mitigation and prevention technologies of fire for lithium ion batteries.

Later this week, Michigan’s Central Station will reopen to the public as a mixed-use building after a six-year renovation and nearly $1 billion in investment by Ford Motor Company and its founding family.

An aerial view of Michigan Central Station and surrounding property, including the former Book Depository (left), under construction in 2020.

Corktown is a very vibrant neighborhood, it’s the oldest neighborhood in Detroit, but it had 30 acres, including this incredible old train station that was literally sitting abandoned and looming over the city as a reminder of the rise and Detroit’s decline, Mary Culler said. , a longtime Ford executive and director of Michigan’s Central Station innovation district.

It was a massive project and needed an extraordinary vision; but when I think about what Ford has done here, it’s really incredible, because it’s giving back to the city an asset, along with the 30 acres around it, that will be incredibly vibrant, she added.

The renewed Michigan Central comes at a critical time in Detroit’s economic recovery, which has been more than a decade in the making, said Kevin Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation.

The city has come a long way since July 18, 2013, when Detroit was the largest municipality in U.S. history to file for bankruptcy after years of declining revenues, population losses, rising crime, a national financial crisis, struggling manufacturers of vehicles and political corruption.

Spot work on a ceiling at Michigan Central Station in 2021.

Any city worth its salt has a vibrant downtown that pumps blood into the neighborhoods it needs so neighborhood revitalization can begin to happen, Johnson said. And that’s been a theme in Detroit since 2013. Right when the bankruptcy happened, philanthropies, corporations, neighborhood groups, outside investors started looking at Detroit as a [growth] opportunity, versus an opportunity to close and shut it down.

And it started with the basics: repairing sidewalks, restoring street lights, revitalizing the riverfront, coordinating trash collection, demolishing abandoned houses, razing dilapidated industrial buildings.

The fundamentals of running a city were the core of what started this revitalization, he said. You should fix the place.

A resurgence within the auto industry and Detroit’s Big Three helped boost those efforts, Johnson said.

The auto industry began to reinvent itself into a new and powerful job creator for Detroit, he said. There was a demand from the Big Three that we wanted you to be as close to our manufacturing base as possible, and that caused those suppliers to take some of those old abandoned facilities and regenerate them.

The economic data speaks volumes for that long road back: The city is adding jobs, generating revenue and, for the first time in decades, growing in population.

As of April, Detroit’s unemployment rate was 3.8%, better than the overall U.S. rate of 3.9%. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show.

I look at the unemployment rate to gauge the overall health of the labor market, which I think is an indicator of how the overall economy is doing, said Charles Dougherty, senior economist at Wells Fargo. It is quite low and has been low for the last few years.

He added: I wouldn’t say that Detroit is fully on its way to a period of robust economic growth, but there are early indications that Detroit is in the beginning stages of a growth comeback.

Residents like Butler have had a front-row seat to the revival.

Construction cranes are silhouetted against the sky in Detroit on September 13, 2022.

What you look for are cranes on the horizon, and now you see them everywhere, and it’s a beautiful thing because it’s something positive for the city. he said. But, allegedly, he removed it [the bankruptcy] happen to get investment and get people to come in and see the high sides of the city.

He added: But now you see it everywhere, and nowhere is it more evident than here at Michigan Central.

Reviving Michigan Central Station was no small feat.

It was the most infamous symbol of Detroit’s decline, the international poster child of ruin [photography]Dan Austin, spokesman for Michigan Centrals who has long chronicled the city’s architectural history at

Fifteen years ago, the station was the bleak and brooding backdrop for rap artist and local boy Eminens’ music video for Beautiful, a song about his struggle with drug addiction.

The video began with the phrase, In 1950, Michigan was 1 of 8 states in America that collectively produced 36% of the world’s GNP. Detroit was the largest manufacturing city in the world.

The train depot at Michigan Central Station in November 2011. For years, it stood as a grim symbol of the city's decline and decline.  The last train pulled out of the station in 1988, just before the Honda Accord became America's best-selling car, a milestone for the city and its key industry.

When Ford bought Michigan Central Station in 2018 for $90 million, chairman Bill Ford told CNN’s Poppy Harlow at the time that tearing down the buildings was like a knife in my heart.

The vision was to restore the building to its former state of grandeur, equip the ground floor with restaurants and retail similar to the renovation of Denver’s Union Station, and put offices and a hotel on the floors above.

Before and After_Interior_Grand Hall_2a.jpg
The Great Hall of Michigan Central Station before and after the six-year renovation project funded by Ford Motor Company.

Stephen McGee/Michigan Central

The neighboring building and surrounding area would be complementary to the task of creating a high-tech innovation district centered on Ford.

Over the past six years, more than 3,000 skilled tradespeople spent a combined 1.7 million hours meticulously renovating the building. That painstaking work (including 450 hours spent hand-carving a Corinthian column that frames the main entrance) involved the Ford Motor Company purchasing and reopening an Indiana quarry that served as the source of the original limestone.

The interior of Michigan Central Station in May.

The amount of love that went into this thing, the attention to detail in getting it right, I don’t know if there’s ever been a restoration project of this scale, Austin said.

When Michigan’s Central Station officially reopens this Friday with a sold-out concert featuring a lineup of unnamed legendary Detroit performers, it will serve as the second act of Ford’s multibillion-dollar innovation district.

Last year, the Book Depository building next door reopened as Newlab at Michigan Central, a technology hub for startups and early-stage companies.

Around 100 firms operate there today, including many spanning the energy, mobility and manufacturing sectors. Emerging projects include the development of roads that charge electric vehicles, robots that can handle last-mile deliveries, and a Google Maps for drones.

It’s really grown into an incredible and thriving ecosystem, said Josh Sirefman, CEO of Michigan Central Station.

And with Michigan Central Station coming online, that’s only set to increase.

This is the poetry of those catalytic Ford investments in physical assets that were symbols of a bygone era and then decline, he said. And they are the epicenter of this work that is positioning Detroit once again as a leader.

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