Detroit lures busi­ness to in­dus­trial parks, am­ple va­cant land


DETROIT | In­side a fenced con­struc­tion site on Detroit’s east side, heavy ma­chines are dig­ging, shov­ing and haul­ing away tons of dirt in prepa­ra­tions for the lat­est ad­di­tion to the city’s in­dus­trial land­scape.

Auto parts sup­plier Flex-N-Gate is ex­pected to bring 750 jobs to Detroit when it com­pletes its 350,000-square-foot plant at the In­ter­state 94 In­dus­trial Park. It will join sev­eral other firms that are in­vest­ing mil­lions of dol­lars where only so many years ago man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs were dis­ap­pear­ing.

The changes come as Detroit, like many other Rust Belt cities, looks to lure firms with just what they’re look­ing for: va­cant land where they can build and grow.

“I do not think Detroit is a tough sell. What we find when we’re speak­ing with prospects is they want to be within a rich and ro­bust clus­ter of other au­to­mo­tive and other ad­vanced in­dus­tries. We have that healthy sup­ply chain with re­gard to au­to­mo­tive and ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing,” said Peter Chap­man, Detroit Eco­nomic Growth Corp. ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for busi­ness de­vel­op­ment.

A 2012 study found Detroit had about 20 square miles of va­cant land across its 139 square miles. Quasi-gov­ern­men­tal groups such as land banks are em­pow­ered by cities to find, ac­quire and clean up the land to com­pete with sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties that have open ex­panses of cleaner soil. Since most of the va­cant land isn’t con­nected, those groups buy up ad­ja­cent lots here and there to make us­able larger pieces.

Detroit’s prime site for new man­u­fac­tur­ing is the 186-acre I-94 In­dus­trial Park north­east of down­town. Flex-N-Gate is sched­uled to open there next year.

It’s “an ex­am­ple of … past work as­sem­bling smaller parcels into larger ones to ac­com­mo­date a man­u­fac­tur­ing op­er­a­tion such as the new Flex-NGate fa­cil­ity,” Mr. Chap­man said.

Other com­pa­nies al­ready in Detroit or mov­ing into the city in­clude Sak­thi Au­to­mo­tive Group, which is plan­ning an 180,000-square-foot ex­pan­sion in south­west Detroit.

ArcelorMit­tal plans to move into a 317,000-square­foot build­ing in the I-94 In­dus­trial Park to make steel blanks for the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try.

Linc Lo­gis­tics’ 500,000-square-foot fa­cil­ity was the first new ten­ant there after Michi­gan made the in­dus­trial park a tax-free zone to help at­tract com­pa­nies and jobs.

Hop­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on com­pa­nies’ de­sire for va­cant land, Detroit is un­der­tak­ing a land-map­ping anal­y­sis to iden­tify va­cant and un­der­uti­lized parcels that could be as­sem­bled into larger parcels.

“You’ve got to have the acreage as­sem­bled to be able to ac­com­mo­date a fa­cil­ity of 200,000 to 400,000 square feet … tracts of land that can be as­sem­bled that are in [a] good lo­ca­tion and have ac­cess to roads so you’re not run­ning trucks through neigh­bor­hoods,” said Michael Samhat, pres­i­dent of Crown En­ter­prises, which de­vel­oped and owns the Linc Lo­gis­tics site at the in­dus­trial park.

Bruce Katz of the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion said it’s not just about “real es­tate” but ac­cess “to a tal­ent pool.”

“Au­to­mo­biles are es­sen­tially com­put­ers on wheels,” said Mr. Katz, who fo­cuses on the chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties of global ur­ban­iza­tion. “The broader Detroit area is one of the great­est hubs of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion around man­u­fac­tur­ing.”

Detroit isn’t the only Rust Belt city with va­cant land for firms.

In Cleve­land the city’s in­dus­trial land bank has cleaned up more than 100 acres and had half of that re­de­vel­oped.

The sites have been in ev­ery area of Cleve­land. “Ten acres to 60 acres,” said David Eber­sole, di­rec­tor of Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment for Cleve­land. “If you don’t have land, you’re not going to land any­body.”

Mil­wau­kee has seen suc­cess along the Menomonee River, an area that once housed shops that made train cars, all kinds of ma­chin­ery, bricks from clay and pro­cessed grains and meat.

Work­ing with Mil­wau­kee’s pri­vate sec­tor, about 300 acres of brown­fields have been re­de­vel­oped into man­u­fac­tur­ing land, trails, parks and wildlife habi­tat. More than 40 com­pa­nies have moved into the area, bring­ing along with them more than 5,000 jobs.

“You are spend­ing money on land some­body else pol­luted,” said Rocky Mar­coux, Mil­wau­kee City De­vel­op­ment com­mis­sioner. “You can go after them for the next 100 years and never col­lect any money. You don’t want these to be ar­eas of dis­in­vest­ment. We are not going to let these aban­doned prop­er­ties be our post­cards for the city of Mil­wau­kee.”


Detroit and other Rust Belt cities have suf­fered in the col­lapse of the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor, but former man­u­fac­tur­ing land is be­ing cleared out to make way for new com­pa­nies to use. One, auto parts sup­plier Flex-N-Gate, is ex­pected to bring 750 jobs to Detroit when it com­pletes its 350,000-square-foot plant at the park.

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