2024 Hour Detroiters: Mary Culler, Carolina Pluszczynski, and Melissa Dittmer

The Dream Team at Michigan Central.
Dittmer (left), Pluszczynski (center), and Culler pose at Newlab at Michigan Central, a full-service innovation hub for startups that inhabits the former Book Depository building. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

The lights are back on at Michigan Central Station. After decades of looming over Corktown, a sad skyline all its own, the massive 1913 train station glows with new purpose: as the soaring centerpiece of the 30-acre Michigan Central innovation district, bankrolled by Ford Motor Co. with a big assist from founding partner Google.

An executive cohort of accomplished women is helping to lead the charge, unafraid to take chances, break down silos, move at the speed of change, and get results. As Carolina Pluszczynski, Michigan Central’s chief operating officer and head of innovation services, puts it: “We have a powerful team, we have a great culture, and we’re getting stuff done.”

In a big way — not the least of which is the meticulous restoration of the station’s Beaux-Arts architecture. When the reborn Michigan Central Station opens this year, its lower level and surrounding outdoor spaces will be open to the public, while its 18-floor tower will house offices, shops, and, eventually, a hotel and restaurants.

All that won’t be complete by the ribbon cutting, but it will be close enough to realize the vision of Bill Ford, executive chair of Ford Motor Co. Ten years ago, Detroit was coming out of bankruptcy, and it felt like things were turning around. But driving down Michigan Avenue to his office, he’d always pass the crumbling, roofless Michigan Central Station.

Longtime Ford executive Mary Culler was his chief of staff at the time. “He said, ‘That train station would be such an amazing place for us to think about doing something really creative and unique.’ He understood that regardless of how Detroit came back, that building was going to loom over the city as a reminder of just how far it had fallen.”

The two were already brainstorming how to move Ford Motor Co. into a greener future, creating new, low-carbon ways to move people and goods.

“We were going to Silicon Valley, we were going to Austin, we were going to all these places,” Culler says. “And it was very clear that we were going to cede the mobility future to someone else if we didn’t double down on making Detroit a real hub for innovation.”

Ford rolled the dice. In 2018, he bought Michigan Central Station and its equally forlorn neighbor, The Book Depository, which had been gutted by fire in the 1980s, about the same time the train terminal was shuttered. The two languished side by side until Ford stepped in.

He named Culler director of the billion-dollar Michigan Central innovation district, which has been called the most important and transformative economic project in Michigan, if not beyond. Does Culler agree?

“Without a doubt. It’s going to be an incredible game changer for the city and for the region.” And it took a company like Ford Motor Co. “Nobody else would do this. Nobody.”

This confidence comes in handy for a project this big, which involves coordinating a complex network of public and private entities, from the grass roots to the governor’s suite. The mother of three holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University, and she worked high up in the Environmental Protection Agency before joining the administration of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to work on economic development, which she calls her “passion.”

She’s held various roles at Ford for the past 20 years; she now runs the Ford Motor Co. Fund, the company’s philanthropic arm, in addition to Michigan Central. This makes sense, since the project has socioeconomic goals.

“Bill wanted it to be a catalyst for innovation, but he wanted community to be at the center of it,” Culler says. “It wasn’t technology for technology’s sake, but it was about how you make people’s lives better — how do you ensure that whatever is being created and developed, that it’s going to be used by people and that it is going to lift communities up?”

When Culler went to assemble her team, she turned to Carolina Pluszczynski, a Ford veteran. The onetime English major at the University of Michigan Dearborn never thought she’d be a COO in the tech world.

“My sweet spot is understanding technologies and how to apply them to businesses,” Pluszczynski says. She plays “matchmaker” between the startups and corporate sponsors. “Corporations aren’t used to working with startups, so we help figure out how to create those relationships.”

Pluszczynski started at Ford 25 years ago and moved across departments, from product development to marketing. She spent two years in the mobility division, planning new initiatives and collaborating with every department. She calls it “learning the big machine,” and those lessons earned her the connections and credibility she would need to effect change on a large scale.

Seeking a tech tenant for the Kahn building, Pluszczynski and Culler visited Newlab, an innovation hub in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. They convinced its co-founder David Belt to open a Detroit branch. In five years, Newlab and Ford Motor Co. transformed the 270,000-square-foot concrete shell filled with sodden schoolbooks into Corktown’s answer to Cupertino, but with a focus on mobility. Sunshine pours through a new atrium skylight.

Spaces are configured for every task, from workstations for “hot desking” to soundproofed phone booths to meeting and conference space. Inventions are displayed throughout, and the surfaces are raw and industrial.

“We kept it gritty feeling because it’s where we want the innovation to happen,” Pluszczynski says. “We want people to build things.” For that, there is a huge makers’ lab complete with everything needed to whip up a prototype in a wide variety of materials.

At Newlab, sharing is caring. “Nothing is proprietary,” Pluszczynski says. “Nobody gets exclusivity,” not even Ford. (A goal of Michigan Central is to be independent someday.) In this “open platform” approach, ideas cross-pollinate and blossom into innovative solutions.“It’s no longer like, you go into your office and close the drapes and work for 18 months and then out comes a new product.”

This kind of innovation can only happen in an “ecosystem” of top talent and top technology operating in places designed to support out-of-the-box thinking, says Josh Sirefman, Michigan Central’s CEO. “Pulling people together, figuring out problem-solving — it’s amazing how difficult doing something new like that is.” This success is a testament, he says, not only to the “amazing, accomplished women working on this project,” but to “all of them working together as a team. And that’s what Michigan Central is all about.”

The Michigan Central innovation district is a wholly owned subsidiary of Ford Motor Co. with nonprofit status, meaning it can tap public funds. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is more than willing to provide them; in 2022, she announced the state would invest $126 million in the project. Inspired by Ford’s investment, the city of Detroit spent $6 million to refurbish Roosevelt Park, long known as Michigan Central Station’s “front lawn.” Creating and keeping new talent is baked into the plan.

In September 2023, a Youth Drone Demo Day attracted nearly 300 schoolkids to the park, where they flew drones and learned about future career options.

The design of spaces inside and out is the purview of Melissa Dittmer. Newlab was still under construction when she joined the Michigan Central team in 2022 as head of place. The well-respected architect and urban planner was previously chief design officer at Bedrock, so she knows a thing or two about the restoration of historic buildings and public engagement. She ensures the Michigan Central project is transparent and inclusive, pointing to the Bagley Mobility Hub as an example.

The innovation district’s only built-from-scratch structure, it provides parking spaces and charging stations for bikes and scooters. But it doubles as a community engagement center and a public art venue and will eventually connect the innovation hub to the rest of the city via the new Southwest Greenway and Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park.

“We have a really special condition here right now where we have public-private partnerships working together at all scales of government and a lot of stakeholders who are really invested in this,” says Dittmer, who is determined to learn from the city’s past to imagine its future.

“The goal is to plan for what works now and will continue to work in the future. … There are way too many incidents and situations that one can point to in the planning history in other cities which seemed right at the time but then became the next generation’s problem.” Then the visionary in her kicks in. “I don’t want to design places and spaces to become 21st-century cities; I want them to leap over into 22nd-century cities.”

This story is part of the 2024 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2024 issue here.