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Ford’s board could vote Thursday on buying Detroit's train depot

A bid to lure young talent to work on EVs and self-driving cars

Ford's interest in acquiring a massive abandoned and blighted train station in Detroit for office space is a huge story around town and also one of its worst-kept secrets, with the automaker reportedly lining up dozens of properties in the surrounding Corktown neighborhood and business district as part of plans to build a new urban campus.

On Thursday, the automaker's board of directors is expected to consider a proposal to buy and rehabilitate the 18-story Michigan Central Station as part of a bid to attract young talent to work on electric and self-driving vehicles for the Blue Oval. Crain's Detroit Business recently reported that Ford has been in discussions with the owners of nearly 50 nearby Corktown properties, ranging from vacant parcels to retail storefronts and large warehouses, as part of its proposal to return to the city where it launched 115 years ago.

The Corktown neighborhood has been a focus of redevelopment efforts in Detroit but would figure to be supercharged with a major investment by the company. Ford is already getting ready to move 220 "Team Edison" employees into a renovated former hosiery factory near the train depot to develop electric and autonomous vehicles, and officials have cited Ford employees' enthusiasm for cities and desire to work in a more urban setting as part of the reason for that move.

The hulking Beaux-Arts Classical train depot has sat vacant since 1988 and is heavily blighted, despite the recent addition of windows to seal it from the elements. It's thought to be big enough to house as many as 3,000 employees. Edsel Ford II, a director, told Automotive News the train-station deal doesn't need formal approval by the board but "requires buy-in."

"Bill's excited about it, and I'm excited about it," Edsel Ford told Crain's recently, referring to Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr.

But the project would also carry huge expenses at a time when Ford is focused on slashing $25 billion in costs by 2022, and it faces an uncertain outcome considering the company is negotiating with the Moroun family, which owns the depot and is known for its hardball business tactics.

It also raises questions about Ford's ambitious plans, announced two years ago, to spend $1 billion over 10 years to renovate and centralize its far-flung headquarters campus in suburban Dearborn, in part with more urban-type amenities like walking and bike trails, fitness centers and public gathering spaces. Crain's reports that CEO Jim Hackett ordered a review of that plan after replacing Mark Fields last year and that that review is still ongoing.

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