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Detroit Mayor Duggan's shrewd deal with Matty Moroun

Apr 30, 2015

Matty Moroun, the 88-year-old owner of the Ambassador Bridge, has one purpose in life: Keeping his monopoly over trade across the Detroit River.

To that end he has spent tens of millions of dollars. He’s bought off lawmakers with campaign contributions.

He spent lavishly on a failed ballot proposal that would have stopped any new bridge, and he constantly files new lawsuits aimed at stopping the New International Trade Crossing Bridge.

But all his efforts seem to have failed. Thanks primarily to Governor Rick Snyder and the Canadian government, a new bridge is close now to reality.

Yet Moroun seems obsessed with his bridge the way Ahab was with Moby Dick.

Seven or eight years ago, freelance investigative reporter Joel Thurtell discovered Moroun had seized part of Detroit’s Riverside Park, posted phony Homeland Security signs, and hired a shotgun-toting goon to keep people out.

The city complained, and filed a lawsuit, but was too weak and had too many other problems to do much about it.

What was happening was this: Despite earlier claims to the contrary, Moroun knows that the Ambassador Bridge, now nearly as old as he, is wearing out. He needs to build a new one, and wants to build it right next to his old bridge, which he bought in 1979.

Nobody else wants this to happen.

There are currently about 16 traffic signals from the Ambassador Bridge’s footprint in Canada to the main highway to Toronto. People in those neighborhoods frequently complain of pollution from truck exhaust. At peak times, trucks are often stacked up for miles, even clogging traffic on I-75.

Well, yesterday, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, another high-stakes poker player, made a surprising deal with Moroun.

The city will give him the three acres of Riverside Park he needs in order to build his second bridge. But in return, the city gets five acres of adjacent land Moroun owns, and Moroun has to pay $3 million to fix up the now shabby park.

What’s more, Moroun has to install more than 1,000 windows in the hulking abandoned Michigan Central train station, which he owns, and do all that by the end of the year. Only when he lives up to his part of the bargain does he get the land.

When it was announced yesterday, longtime activists who live in the area like city council member Raquel Castenada-Lopez were outraged.

How could the city be doing a deal with one of Detroit’s most notorious slumlords?

This is a man with a history of urban blight and broken promises. Frankly, I too felt that way at first, but then it dawned on me that the troll under the bridge may have met his match.

Consider this: The city gets everything it wants before Moroun gets his land, and even when he has it, it doesn’t do much for him. Canada is dead set against a second bridge in that very congested place. They can stall things for years, and Moroun can’t have many left.

I think Mayor Duggan may have capitalized on our local Ahab’s obsession with his whale of a bridge to get a good deal for Detroit in return for three acres of dirt.

If that isn’t shrewd politics, I don’t know what is.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.