By Sherri Welch, Crain News Service
DETROIT (July 16, 2013) — The Michigan factory where Henry Ford's moving assembly line was born would be a destination for tourists and car enthusiasts alike if plans by a local historic preservation group come together.
The Woodward Avenue Action Association in suburban Detroit is a step closer to its vision of establishing an automotive welcome center and visitor attraction at the historic Highland Park, Mich., complex where Henry Ford's moving assembly line was born 100 years ago this October.
The group has a purchase agreement with the complex's owner, National Equity Corp., to pay $550,000 for two of eight buildings at the historic Ford manufacturing complex: a four-floor, 40,000-sq.-ft. administration building and the 8,000-sq.-ft. executive garage near it, according to interim executive director Deborah Schutt.
The deal would also include three acres of land fronting Woodward that Ms. Schutt said would lend itself to a parking lot.
Martin Ross, co-owner and principle of National Equity, was unavailable for comment.
The Michigan Department of Transportation has awarded a $400,000 grant to the project. That, coupled with a $15,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and $10,000 from its own reserves, leaves it with $125,000 to raise before the deal's scheduled closing Oct. 1, Ms. Schutt said.
WA3, a nonprofit aimed at bolstering economic development along Woodward, has a couple of funding requests to foundations in the hopper and its board is also appealing to individual donors in the community for donations, she said. It's also considering an appeal to the general public.
"We would rather reserve that (public) campaign for the actual fundraising to renovate the building ...(but) we want to make sure the deal will close," Ms. Schutt said.
Tours, virtual driving experience
Early plans for the two buildings call for development of an automobile heritage welcome center on the ground floor of the administration building and in the executive garage, she said.
The center would include a theater with continuous videos, informational kiosks, interpretive displays on automotive history and a gift/coffee/snack shop. It could also be a place where visitors could pick up historical automotive tours, such as the current tour offered by the Woodward group, "In the Steps of Henry."
That tour includes visits to where Henry Ford lived and served as an apprentice, Edison Illuminating Co. where he worked, (now part of the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel) and the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Woodward Avenue, where he attended church and received last rites.
Ms. Schutt said Woodward group envisions renting space on the second through fourth floors of the administration building to businesses offering some sort of automotive-related experience such as a virtual driving experience or virtual automotive parts production or assembly program so visitors can see how cars are designed and built.
The plan is to have the first two buildings open in five years, Ms. Schutt said.
The two buildings are part of a larger vision that the Woodward group hopes to bring to fruition, should it be able to convince Mr. Ross to sell the other buildings, she said.
"Our goal is to get public access to that entire site and to get people into the factory space," she said. "People need to see where history that changed the world was made."
The complex-wide plan could include tours of the historic factory itself, a vehicle test track offering visitors the chance to get behind the wheel, a wind tunnel akin to those auto makers use for vehicle testing, car collections and/or car condos to serve as storage for collectors' cars and a home for the Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Destination for world heritage
The Highland Park plant site is a National Historic Landmark and a registered historic site with the state of Michigan and has a Michigan Historic marker.
"There is not a week that goes by that someone from Europe or Asia doesn't arrive at the (complex) guard shack and ask how they come in to see Ford Highland Park" and the birthplace of mass manufacturing, Ms. Schutt said.
"The Europeans and Asians are shocked when there's no public access" to the complex, which "literally changed the world," she said.
The Woodward group plans to pursue a UNESCO World Heritage site designation for the buildings once it closes on the purchase of them; that is a designation given to destinations like the Egyptian Pyramids, Ms. Schutt said.
This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.