Ford development a shot in the arm for Dearborn

Dearborn — Hundreds of Ford Motor Co.’s most tech-savvy employees will soon set up shop in new offices here in downtown, two miles west of world headquarters but a long way from its industrial roots.

Call it a second wind for Henry Ford’s hometown. As the city climbs out of the hole left by the Great Recession, the Blue Oval is posting record profits even as it steps deeper into mobility and autonomy — potentially some of the company’s most innovative work since its founder created the moving assembly line.

Ford Land Co., the automaker’s real estate arm, on Wednesday officially started construction on the $60 million, 150,000-square-foot mixed-use development spanning about a block and a half on Michigan Avenue near Monroe. Dubbed Wagner Place, the project will open next summer as an ancillary development to Ford’s estimated billion-dollar, 10-year transformation of its two main Dearborn campuses to the east.

And as Ford gives itself a face-lift to compete with high-tech companies like Google, Apple and Uber for employees in the mobility and autonomy fields, the city the company calls home expects to reap the benefits.

“It’s really a catalyst for a lot of other things,” Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly said. This “is going to reinvigorate the entire campus and the image of Ford. And of course the image of Ford is what the image of Dearborn is based on. It’s a great beginning of a new legacy and a new opportunity in this community.”

Gov. Rick Snyder, a former Dearborn resident, echoed O’Reilly. He added that jobs will be created around downtown as a result of the relocated Ford employees.

Ford plans to place 600 people from its global data insights and analytics team in the new offices. City officials and Ford leadership expect them to thrive in the new urban offices, and give the new restaurants and retail on the ground floor of the development the steady stream of patronage some downtown Dearborn storefronts lacked in recent years.

“Wagner Place really cements the idea that there’s a new environment being built in our downtown,” said Susan Dabaja, City Council president. “It sets in stone that there’s a commitment to making downtown thrive. We went through some rough times like every other city, but this is our rebirth right now, and people feel that.”

Dabaja said the shift downtown started a few years ago when the City Council decommissioned parking meters, which were killing already struggling businesses. As the city began to limp out of nearly a decade of downtown misfires, Ford mounted its own reinvention.

That the company forged by the current of the Rouge River is choosing to locate part of its growing technology wing in Dearborn instead of Silicon Valley or booming downtown Detroit, has Dabaja, nearly a lifelong Dearborn resident, feeling sentimental.

“It’s sort of the perfect storm,” she said. “They could have easily gone downtown” to Detroit. “They’ve continued to show their commitment to Dearborn. It’s kind of moving.”

In addition to the downtown work, Ford plans to replace dozens of 60-year-old buildings over the next decade, locating 30,000 employees at two main hubs. About half of the work will happen at its world headquarters campus, with the rest around the product development center near The Henry Ford.

Company and city officials say Dearborn and Ford are proceeding in lockstep, though the downtown project is a bit overdue. A more vibrant Dearborn should help Ford attract more young professionals to the company; more Ford employees means a bigger tax base, and hopefully more homeowners for the city.

“The time is right,” said Dave Dubensky, Ford Land chairman and CEO. “This is really a natural extension of all the work we’re doing in the main campuses. We’re stewards of the community, and we want to make sure this community thrives.”