Just over two years ago, billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun announced that he would hand the reins of his international trucking and real estate empire to his son, Matthew Moroun.
The younger Moroun told the Detroit Free Press his approach to business differed from his father’s. He preferred open dialogue to unilateral decision-making, and sought to “change the narrative” by becoming a better corporate neighbor that partnered with the community instead of punishing it.
“I’m trying to build a bridge, so I need friends. My father’s friends? They’re all gone, practically,” Matthew Moroun said at the time.
Since those proclamations, the Morouns have remained in the news. Most prominently, the family sold Michigan Central Station to Ford Motor Company for $90 million.
Late last year, their real estate arm, Crown Enterprises, purchased the Bel-Air Shopping Plaza, which holds the city’s only functioning mainstream movie theater. Their plans are unclear, but some speculate the plaza will come down. Demolishing a movie theater may not endear the Morouns to the city’s residents, and that raises questions about whether the family is living up to its promise to be a good corporate neighbor.
On the one hand, it seems evident that the dramatic legal fights with local, state, and federal governments—like that which landed the elder Moroun in jail for a night—are a thing of the past.
“It seems to me that they’re taking a more conciliatory approach in dealing with the community,” says John Mogk, an urban issues scholar at Wayne State University. Though he noted that may partially be a result of the Morouns securing a permit for a second Ambassador Bridge span.
Still, some in Southwest Detroit, where the family conducts much of its business, say Matthew Moroun may be a better negotiator, but the results aren’t any better for residents. Those who battled the Morouns for decades say Crown continues taking property in the area using ethically questionable tactics.
Meanwhile, the family still can’t escape lingering animosity and suspicion from residents. “We feel like they’re snakes in the tall grass waiting to strike again,” says Deb Sumner, a Hubbard Farm resident and member of Bridgewatch Detroit. “We’ve got to watch them like a hawk for when they’ll strike next.”
‘A ghost neighborhood’
The Bel-Air announcement served as a reminder: Before Mike Ilitch became Detroit’s boogeyman billionaire dujour by acquiring entire neighborhoods, emptying them out, and demolishing buildings as part of a cynical plan to enrich his family, Matty Moroun did the same on an even larger scale.
In the area around Ambassador Bridge, critics say the Morouns permanently damaged once-strong neighborhoods.
“There’s always been a concern that they would let this part of the neighborhood essentially go away and it would be one big trucking terminal that would serve the bridge,” former Bagley Housing Association director Vince Murray told the Detroit News in 2018.
In 2015, the Morouns had amassed $146,000 in blight tickets. Those were paid off as part of a deal that involved the city’s approval of a second span. The deal, however, didn’t require the Morouns to bring the properties up to code, and hundreds remain in violation.
A similar scene exists on the Canadian side of the bridge, where the Morouns have bought around 200 properties and let them fall into disrepair. The New York Times described the area as “a ghost neighborhood of over 100 boarded-up houses and three abandoned apartment buildings punctuated by a few, lonely occupied homes, a result of a long-running battle between an American businessman and Canadian governments at various levels.”
Even as Matthew Moroun carried out his goodwill media tour, Crown was attempting to vacate St. Anne Street and an alley that borders’ the historic St. Anne Church’s property. Sumner highlighted the disconnect between the billionaire heir’s words and actions in an open letter to Matthew Moroun. Closing the street and alley would cut off first responders’ access, she argued.
“How, you may ask, can I prove to the people of the Southwest Detroit community that I mean what I say—that I do want to ‘change the narrative’ of my and my father’s [Detroit International Bridge Crossing]?” Sumner asked. “We the people of this community need you to stop forever the DIBC’s pursuit of closing St. Anne Street … Please, Matthew, let me know whether you will put your words into these actions, to do what is just and right.”
Matthew Moroun’s attempt to take the property came straight his father’s playbook. Most infamously, in 2011, Matty Moroun erected fencing with fake Homeland Security signage around part of Southwest’s Riverside Park, and in 2012 illegally rerouted truck traffic in the area around the bridge.
The Morouns appear to have relented on St. Anne Street. Is that part of the new Moroun brand? Sumner isn’t sure, but Southwest remains on its toes.
“We were able to make enough noise, but we don’t take anything lightly when it comes to that company—they have no interest in the residents who live in this community,” she says.
About 18 months after the St. Anne fight went quiet, the city went to the Morouns about acquiring an unused 82-acre property the family owned on Detroit’s east side.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles needed it for its proposed new plant, and the Moroun’s would fleece the city in the deal that followed.
The billionaire family demanded $43.5 million in cash along with 261 properties, of which nine sat in the bridge’s footprint, according to an analysis by the Detroit Free Press. The paper noted that the Morouns appear to have quietly taken over the nine parcels long before the deal, and had used them without paying taxes.
The family also received three acres of land previously slated for mixed use development along the West Vernor corridor. A city official told angry Southwest residents that the Morouns demanded each of the properties in the deal.
“We asked to put cash on the table and [Crown Enterprises] went insane and said they wouldn’t do the deal,” the official told the Free Press.
In 2018, Canada made an announcement that shocked observers: It would issue a permit that will allow the Morouns to build a second span. The decision was the latest twist in a decade-long fight with the billionaire family over its proposed new bridge.
Had Matthew’s diplomacy efforts in Ottawa paid dividends? That’s unclear, though the second span is far from a done deal.
In 2012, the Ambassador Bridge war resulted in what was the most shocking turn of events in the Moroun saga: A Detroit district court judge ordered Matty Moroun to spend a night in jail for ignoring orders to finish his company’s portion of a truck ramp on which it partnered with the state.
The Metro Times captured the moment Moroun learned he was going to jail: “At first he showed a tight-lipped smile. As it became clear he was going to be spending at least some time behind bars, that expression turned to what looked like open-mouthed disbelief.”
Several years later, the youngest Moroun continues to fight tooth and nail against the Gordie Howe Bridge. State courts last year rejected his legal challenges, and the Michigan Supreme Court refused to hear the case. But Matthew Moroun didn’t stop there. The family made political contributions to Republican State Rep. Matt Maddock, who chairs the transportation committee. Maddock attempted to use his position to block funding for the new bridge, even though Canada is reimbursing Michigan for the project.
When all else failed, the Morouns pleaded for Trump’s intervention with an advertisement it ran on Fox and Friends. The president didn’t respond.
Meanwhile, the sideshows continue under the new Moroun. The family resisted a state requirement to sell a smog-reducing summer-formula gasoline until a federal judge ordered it to do so last year.
In 2018, the Morouns acquired a 200-acre property in Trenton from the Wayne County Land Bank that holds the massive vacant McLouth Steel plant. The parcel stretches for over a mile along the Detroit River’s shoreline.
Plans for the land are unclear, though the Morouns promised $20 million in investment. The Morouns began tearing down the property’s structures in early 2019, but work was promptly halted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality over multiple asbestos violations.
‘They let it decline’
In the hours following the announcement that the Moroun’s planned to sell its long-vacant, decaying train station to Ford, Matthew Moroun patted himself on the back.
“We held strong,” he told reporters during a press conference. “I thank my father for sharing his vision with me about this building and passing on his unwavering strength in standing by your belief even when the short-sighted conventional wisdom folks are hurling rocks.”
Some scoffed at the idea of the Morouns receiving any praise for allowing the train station to turn into a hulking, internationally recognized symbol of Detroit’s fall. Sumner says the Morouns “shouldn’t have gotten a penny.”
“It was intact when they got it and they let it decline completely,” she says. “It was a fabulous building that hadn’t been stripped, then Morouns got control of it, they didn’t secure it, and it went to hell.”