More signals emerge on Ford's possible purchase of Detroit train station

Ford statement on Detroit developments: “We expect to grow our presence in Detroit and will share more details in the future.” Photo credit: Chad Livengood/Crain’s Detroit Business

DETROIT — One of the real estate companies in businessman Matty Moroun’s empire quietly transferred ownership of the Michigan Central Station to a mystery company last week as all signs point to Ford Motor Co. purchasing Detroit’s long-vacant train station in the Corktown neighborhood.

A warranty deed dated May 22 was recorded May 23 by the Wayne County Register of Deeds, transferring ownership from the Moroun-owned MCS Crown Land Development Co. LLC to New Investment Properties I LLC, property records obtained by Crain’s Detroit Business show. CDB is an affiliate of Automotive News.

On the same day, the Moroun company also transferred ownership of the former Detroit Public Schools book depository building next to the depot to a separate entity called New Investment Properties II LLC.

The deed records list the address for both New Investment Properties entities as the New York law firm Phillips Lytle LLP; there’s no record to suggest the entity receiving the property is another Moroun-owned real estate holding company.

A spokesman for the law firm did not have immediate comment Wednesday. Phillips Lytle has done legal work for Ford in the past, touting an award from Corporate Counsel magazine for its work on behalf of the company, among others.

Both New Investment Properties I and II were incorporated within a week of each other in late February and early March, according to state corporation records.

Because the identity of owners behind both entities can be shielded under state corporation law, it’s unclear whether New Investment Properties I and II are linked to Ford or a related entity. Officials on both sides of the negotiations were tight-lipped about the deed transfers when contacted Wednesday by Crain’s.

Dawn Booker, communications manager for Ford Land Development Co., the automaker’s real estate division, declined to comment on the deeds Wednesday morning but instead provided the following statement: “We are very excited about our return to Detroit this year beginning with our electric vehicle and autonomous vehicle teams relocating to the historic former factory in Corktown. We expect to grow our presence in Detroit and will share more details in the future.”

The warranty deed was signed by Michael Samhat, president of Crown Enterprises Inc., a real estate development firm that’s part of billionaire trucking mogul and train station owner Moroun’s business holdings.

Samhat declined comment Wednesday on the deed transfers.

County records also show the Moroun family’s Detroit International Bridge Co. issued a quit-claim deed on May 22, transferring the train station property to MCS Crown Land Development LLC, which then issued the warranty deed transferring the property to the mystery company.

A warranty deed signifies that a property has clear title. A quitclaim deed transfers interest from the previous owner to a new owner.

Requests for comment were left with Ford Motor Co. and Mayor Mike Duggan’s office.

Previous signals

Ford has been in talks for the train station and other nearby properties for months.

Crain’s first reported March 19 that the automaker was in negotiations to buy the 505,000-square-foot train station from the Moroun family and redevelop it. That news came three months after Ford revealed it was placing 220 autonomous and electric vehicle workers nearby in a building called The Factory at Corktown. That move began last week as the Team Edison business division moved into the building at Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard.

Edsel B. Ford II, a member of the Ford Motor Co. board of directors and great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford, confirmed on April 30 that the company was considering purchasing the train station.

Ford officials told shareholders at a May 10 virtual meeting that “grow our presence in Detroit and will share more details in the future” in response to a question about how purchasing and renovating the train station will enhance shareholder value in the company’s lagging stock.

The Ford Land spokeswoman’s response to Crain’s on Wednesday mirrored the company’s official response to shareholders three weeks ago.

There have been growing signs of Ford’s intent on building a campus in Corktown, Detroit’s oldest neighborhood west of downtown that gets its name from Ireland’s County Cork, where the Ford family has its ancestral roots.

50 properties

But more than the train station, Ford has been in discussions to buy nearly 50 properties, mostly small slivers of land but also other buildings, to create a large campus in the neighborhood. Included in the plans are the old Detroit Public Schools book depository and other buildings near the train station, which has sat unused for three decades.

In recent weeks, workers have been spotted touring the depot and city employees have improved Roosevelt Park, cleaning up overgrown grass and installing mulch immediately in front of the building. Several light poles were also removed.

If a campus comes to fruition, the project would be transformative for the neighborhood and city. It is also expected to set off a slew of ripple effects, including an increase in the price of residential and commercial property in the neighborhood and increased businesses for the neighborhood’s restaurant scene.

Real estate and construction experts have said a redevelopment of the train station alone is certain to cost at least $ 300 million; any redevelopment of the train station would likely seek millions in tax incentives.

A project of its scale could qualify for incentives from the state’s “transformational brownfield” law, pushed by Detroit mortgage and real estate mogul Dan Gilbert and economic development officials and adopted in Lansing last year. Last week, Gilbert received $ 618 million in tax incentives from the state for four projects totaling $ 2.14 billion.

Samhat has said the family had spent more than $ 8 million over the past five years abating the building, constructing a freight elevator in the shaft of the depot’s original smokestack and installing 1,100 windows.

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