It was the late 1970s. The region was hemorrhaging jobs to the South. Auburn Hills was not yet Auburn Hills; it was Pontiac Township. And then-Gov. William Milliken had an idea: the creation of a Michigan research and technology park to attract new high-growth technology and R&D jobs to the state.
Although the idea of a state-sponsored park never quite materialized, others were inspired by it and eventually the Oakland Technology Park with its more than 1,000 acres attracted large developments, the most recent of which have been on 211 acres of land purchased from Chrysler Corp. during its bankruptcy.
All told, that portion has attracted nearly $100 million in development from five major corporate relocations and consolidations totaling more than 900,000 square feet in North American or international headquarters space, according to Auburn Hills economic development officials.
The companies with new buildings in the technology park are U.S. Farathane Corp.; Henniges Automotive Inc., Faurecia North America Inc., Atlas Copco North America Inc., and Hirotec America Inc.
A joint venture between Southfield-based General Development Co. LLC and Farmington Hills-based Friedman Integrated Real Estate Solutions LLC purchased the 211 acres from Chrysler during its bankruptcy in 2010 for $2.5 million. The remaining 800 or so acres have multiple owners, the largest of which, FCA US LLC (formerly Chrysler), owns just over 500 of them. Others include Johnson Controls Inc. and Delphi Automotive plc.
“It’s the real northern boundary, at present, in terms of corporations and where they want to draw their workforce from in Oakland County,” said Gary Weisman, co-owner of General Development.
“It is between a lot of banking and shopping and housing,” he said. “It’s an all-inclusive city that is the northern boundary for large corporations in Oakland County, which are the kind of customers we deal with there, who go there for corporate reasons. They want to be next to other clients like themselves with the employee base.”
Paul Hoge, principal of Southfield-based Signature Associates Inc., said that while other large business parks in Auburn Hills were more fully developed sooner — in particular, Metro North Technology Park and Pinnacle Corporate Center — Oakland Technology Park is another example of the city’s business-friendly environment.
“Sometimes you’ll find a disconnect between the economic development people in a given city and the building department people,” he said. “The economic development people will all say we’ll welcome you with open arms, but sometimes building departments create more obstacles than they eliminate. Auburn Hills is not that way. They are very pro-business and they understand that time is usually of the essence.”
Milliken created the 12-member High-Tech Task Force to investigate the park’s creation and pitch a site for it. Ann Arbor was an obvious choice, but Auburn Hills — then largely rural — emerged as the frontrunner, with a vast swath of land bounded by I-75, M-59, Oakland University and Oakland Community College. OU’s president at the time, Joe Champagne, served on the task force, and some of the land that became part of the tech park had been owned by OU.
But roads and bridges had to be built, utility connections established and zoning changes enacted, said Steve Cohen, director of community development for Auburn Hills. The state, even though it had dropped the idea of a state-sponsored park at that point, still paid for highway and interchange improvements, while the city and Road Commission for Oakland County paid for improvements to roads surrounding the park and utility costs.
“This was Star Wars-type stuff,” he said. “All this had to occur to accommodate this large amount of development coming in. The state of Michigan, Oakland County and Auburn Hills all had to work together, and obviously the development community had to invest. It was a planned effort that everyone came together to do.”
Thirty years before the automotive development this decade, Comerica Bank opened a check processing and computer center on the property, stepping up to the plate to develop the land when the state stepped away from an agreement to buy the property.
“Someone needed to make the initial bold move and then someone followed,” said Tom Tanghe, city manager for Auburn Hills. “Someone needed to take a leadership position and invest.”
Then Electronic Data Systems Corp., owned by Ross Perot until General Motors Corp. purchased it in 1984 for $2.55 billion, developed on the land.
And slowly but surely, others followed suit, permanently changing the Auburn Hills landscape. For example, in a 1996 interview with Crain’s, then City Manager Dennis McGee said horses were still grazing the tech park land when he came to the city a decade earlier.
Fast-forward to today, and Auburn Hills is one of the bright spots in Oakland County development, regularly attracting new projects of the scope that have sprouted up in the past five years on the General Development/Friedman land.
And there’s more likely to come.
Of the 211 acres the JV purchased in 2010, another 70 or so remain available for new development.