Can Detroit trust the Moroun family in Riverside Park land deal?

ambassadorThe Detroit City Council this week postponed a vote on a deal that would see the city transfer public parkland along the Detroit River to the controversial owners of the Ambassador Bridge, who need the land to build a new twin span to Canada. In exchange, the city would get a larger parcel of riverfront property, millions in cash and other perks.

The issue of building a new Detroit-Windsor crossing has raged for years and pitted supporters of a publicly owned span against billionaire Manuel (Matty) Moroun, the owner of the Detroit International Bridge Co., trucking and real estate magnate, and all-around shape shifter. The backstory is jaw-dropping but far too lengthy to go into here (for a primer, check out The Windsor Star, Metro Times columnist Jack Lessenberry or blogger Joel Thurtell).

The bottom line

The state of Michigan and Canada — well, mostly Canada, bless their hearts — will build the Gordie Howe International Bridge sometime in the coming years. Moroun’s company, meanwhile, continues to fight and scrap for a way to build its own, privately owned new bridge.

Meanwhile, Detroit has a golden opportunity sitting before it.

The offer

Detroit would give Moroun 3 acres of Riverside Park, which sits next to the Ambassador Bridge, in exchange for 5 acres owned by the DIBC immediately west of Riverside Park. The city would also get $3 million for park improvements.

What’s more, Moroun has pledged to install more than 1,000 windows in the infamously decayed and abandoned Michigan Central Station, which he owns. He would also add another $2 million once — and if — he secures federal and state approvals for the land transfer.

‘Bad reputation’

MCS
A view of Moroun-owned Michigan Central Station, perhaps Detroit’s most infamous ruin.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but you also have to realize who the city is dealing with here. Moroun has a long history of deceit, contempt, neglect and influence peddling, and he’s made a lot of enemies in Detroit and beyond.

“We developed a bad reputation with the city,” Matt Moroun, Matty’s son and current president of the bridge company, told the Detroit Free Press in a remarkable understatement. “… And I think I’m going to have a long future of doing business in the city.

“I’m only 42 years old. So I’ve got to change the reputation of my company and my family. And by making this deal, I know I’m paying a lot more, but I’m hoping to not only get a completely fresh start, but to get to a situation where whether it’s the mayor’s office or city councilors or the community, we can build back a little trust. And the next deal or opportunity, it’ll be easier to work with them.”

The Morouns are maybe even less popular across the border, where best I can tell Canadian officials are dead set against allowing a twin span for the Ambassador Bridge. Officially, Transport Canada is reviewing feedback from a public comment period before making its recommendation to the federal government, according to the Star.

An insider view

I spoke this week with a friend who works as an attorney in Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office. He said the mayor’s team, who have negotiated the deal, is well aware that Moroun may never get clearance from Canada to build a second span. But this may simply give him hope, he suggested. “We don’t give a shit about Matty Moroun,” he told me.

Rather, he said, the city views this as a no-brainer: swapping existing parkland with contaminated soil to the bridge company in exchange for a larger parcel and $5 million in cash, all to give Moroun a sense that he is making progress on his goal of twinning his aging, cash cow monopoly.

Council members apparently wanted to try and sweeten the deal further with all kinds of other demands, including a cut of future revenues from the twin span.

In the meantime, does the city finally have the upper hand with the Morouns?

Photos via Thomas Hawk here and here

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