Gregg Ward is a nice guy with a lousy view. His family business overlooks Detroit’s hell on earth: the hulking, pitch-black U.S. Steel plant on Zug Island whose blast furnaces belch 30-foot plumes of fire.
Next door, mixing trucks kick up dust at a massive concrete operation, the air is so thick that black grime coats street signs. Sometimes, when the wind shifts, the scent of chemicals gives way to feces from Detroit’s nearby wastewater treatment plant.
“You never get used to it,” sighs Ward.
He may not get the chance. Ward owns the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, a barge that carries trucks loaded with hazardous materials – paints, solvents, whiskey and acids – across the Detroit River. It will soon become obsolete and close when the $4.5 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge to Windsor opens in about four years.
But for a man with a dying business, Ward sure seems happy. He says he’s at peace with his fate, so long as the new bridge benefits the public and not his nemesis: Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who owns the 88-year-old Ambassador Bridge just to the east.
“A new bridge is out of my control, but it’s a good project that makes all the sense in the world,” says Ward, 57, of Dearborn.
“It’s good for national security. It’s good for redundancy, and it’s good for Detroit.”
But some in the path of the bridge are not nearly as thrilled.
There’s the Moroun-linked company that owns the Ambassador Bridge, of course. The company, which proposes to build its own, parallel span, is suing the state of Michigan to block condemnation efforts of 20 parcels necessary for the Gordie Howe bridge, which Canada is funding. The project can't proceed without that land.
And there are other business owners in the footprint of the bridge, as well as neighbors of surrounding properties, who say the process hasn’t always been smooth.
“It’s very difficult to do a project of this magnitude, with all the governments involved, and expect everyone to be perfectly happy,” said Jeff Cranson, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.
“But it’s for the greater good of both countries.”
The border crossing is the busiest in North America one of the richest in the world, carrying some $340 million in trade daily. Officials on both sides of the border have lobbied for a new bridge for at least 20 years, citing traffic snarls, security concerns, the age of the Ambassador Bridge, and ongoing headaches with its private owner.
Welcome to America
Ward has feuded with Moroun since 1990, when he began his barge business, which is reportedly the only one of its kind. The grudge may last longer than the Delray neighborhood that binds them.
Once the home of Hungarian immigrants, the slab of forlorn land hugging the river in Southwest Detroit is changing by the day.
Bulldozers are clearing 4,000 trees, while 200 homes have been demolished. On a pleasant April morning, Ward drove around the neighborhood, pointing out the boundaries of the planned, six-lane, 1.5-mile bridge.
Just outside the footprint are ramshackle homes with small yards filled with junk. They will stay.
“Welcome to America,” Ward says.
All told, 229 homes and 88 businesses will be condemned through eminent domain, according to the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, the government agency overseeing the construction of the Gordie Howe bridge.
Some 95 percent of U.S. properties required to be moved for the new bridge have been purchased, and construction contracts should be signed in September.
A few holdouts remain, including Moroun. The lawsuit over the land is due to be heard in July in Wayne County Circuit Court.
At a forum last month, Gordie Howe Bridge officials said they aren’t worried.
“This project isn’t going to happen. This project is happening,” Heather Grondin, vice president of communications for the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, told about 50 residents in Southwest Detroit at a community meeting.
“We’ve already signed $350 million in contracts, and work already is underway. We are moving ahead regardless of other activities people may be having.”
About a dozen businesses remain in the footprint of the bridge in Delray, and more are leaving every week. Most aren’t getting enough for their land, contends attorney Alan Ackerman.
“Matty made it tough. No doubt,” said Ackerman, an attorney for about 14 businesses that have been condemned by the state for the project.
“Do I disagree with him? To an extent that it’s made it harder to negotiate for my clients. But he’s a businessman who is trying to protect his investment. It’s inevitable Matty and MDOT will come to an accommodation.”
Ackerman’s clients include Gordy Ebsch, the owner of Delray Mechanical Corp., an industrial welding business the state condemned in July.
Crews are cutting trees so fast outside his business on South Port Street, he wrapped one with signs in orange paper pleading: “PLEASE DON’T CUT DOWN THIS TREE! MDOT HAS NOT PURCHASED THIS PROPERTY FROM US.”
Ebsch wants to temporarily relocate and then move back to Delray to service bridge construction subcontractors. Planning how to make that happen consumes 18-30 hours per week.
“I’m not whole. Not when you are offered less than you paid for it 20 years ago,” he said.
“I’m not making widgets. I need to be out by my customers. ... We offer great service because we are close by and we can respond quickly.”
On the other side of the river, Canada compensated owners in the path of the project years ago. “The Canadians get a better deal. No question,” Ackerman said. “Their eminent domain process pays better and more.”
Ackerman, a long-time eminent domain attorney, nonetheless called Michigan’s negotiations “the most sincere effort I’ve ever seen from a government.”
Cranson, the MDOT spokesman, said state law sets the standard for compensation and caps it at 125 percent of appraised value. He noted that hundreds of homeowners and renters in Delray already have been paid (through Canadian funds) and relocated.
Andrew Doctoroff, a senior special projects adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder, said he "knows of no similarly situated property owners on the other side of the border who were treated better than" those in Detroit. He said state officials are "bending over backwards to preserve jobs and ensure businesses that can relocate."
A separate program administered by the City of Detroit (and also funded by Canadians) aims to entice occupants of 350 homes surrounding the Gordie Howe Bridge to relocate.
Unlike Windsor, Detroit has attached conditions to the program that allows residents to receive a city-owned home in another Detroit neighborhood. The program is worth up to $60,000, but residents must be current on their taxes and water bills.
The effort was launched this year, and so far no residents have relocated.
“They’re not really telling anyone anything. They should be knocking on doors to get us out of this neighborhood,” said Robert Dzbankski, a former disc jockey who says he’s been disabled since he was in a motorcycle crash caused by a drunk driver.
“All day long, we’re going to hear the rumble of construction when this starts. Just ‘boom, boom, boom.’ Oh no, I like my windows open. I’m ready to get out.”
Some homeowners have been matched with homes even though they have yet to relocate, said state Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit.
“There are probably ways to improve it, but we recognize this is the first time a program like this has happened,” Chang said. “I’m optimistic that, by residents offering input, we can make it better.”
‘We should be better’
Back on the Detroit River, tractor-trailers carrying flammable, corrosive radioactive, explosive or oversized materials rumble down a dusty road onto Ward’s barge.
They’re carrying whiskey from Windsor’s Hiram Walker plant, windmill parts, foundry corrosives and the like. On the hour, a tugboat, the Stormont, leaves the dock.
The 1-mile trek across the river passes by Detroit’s industrial underbelly and reminders of days gone by, like a sign advertising the long-closed Boblo Island amusement park.
The barge glides past blast furnaces spewing smoke, concrete companies churning rocks, and fishing boats dropping lines.
Over the years, Ward says he’s become a champion of a publicly owned span not only because it would increase security and improve the flow of traffic at the Detroit-Windsor border, but also relocate residents out of Delray.
“I don’t believe that in 2018 in America, people should be living in the shadow of belching industry,” Ward says. “We should be better than that.”
Ward will be 61 when the new bridge opens, and in need of another job. He isn’t being compensated for the likely loss of his business, say Michigan and Ontario officials, who praise his commitment to “the public good.”
Like so much in Delray these days, Ward has no idea what will happen then.
“I try not to think about it,” he says. “I guess I’ll figure it out.”