Inside Artist Tony Roko’s Plan to Transform a Historic Plymouth Mill

The local creative plans to turn the former Ford Motor Co. space, which was designed by Albert Kahn, into a public-private arts complex
Tony Roko
Artwork by Tony Roko

On June 18, a battalion of marchers packed closely into Plymouth’s Penn Theatre. The exuberant group — who filled the 400-seat venue to capacity, with more people spilling into the lobby — wore black T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Fostering Creative Minds,” the tagline of nonprofit Art Foundation, which is led by local artist Tony Roko and provides arts education to disadvantaged youths.  “We had kids from ages 14 to 20 in droves,” says Roko, who, with his Art Foundation partner Greg Hoffman, had come to the theater to pitch his effort to buy Plymouth’s historic Wilcox Mill. His vision: transform the derelict mill into a multipurpose art and event space — the first of its kind in metro Detroit.

As it stands, the 5,500-square-foot, Albert Kahn-designed Wilcox Mill — which was built in 1922 as a part of Henry Ford’s “village industries” program of small factories employing rural workers — is entirely devoid of art. In fact, since Ford Motor Co. gave it (and two other mills) to Wayne County in the late 1940s, it’s only been used to store road equipment and Christmas lights.

Roko says he has eyed the building for two decades. “It’s boarded up, fenced, off limits to the public, a dumping ground for 70 years,” says the 49-year-old Plymouth native, who went to work for Ford some 30 years ago. He started in trim assembly at the Wayne plant, now known as the Michigan Assembly Plant. By an amazing route that started with his sketching during work breaks, he became Ford’s resident artist, and his creations inside factories have made him the foremost Detroit muralist since Diego Rivera. Executing commissions for high-profile patrons like Lady Gaga and Jay Leno has added luster to his portfolio. He’s lately been occupied at the Michigan Central Station in Detroit but planned a month-long break to create a mural of the 2020  Ford Ranger, another plant job.

In 2018, Wayne County put the mill up for sale as a part of an effort to jettison unneeded properties. “A historic site is important, but it can’t be our financial priority,” County Executive Warren C. Evans said earlier this year. “Those mills either die a slow death or become a part of a turnaround, which is a public-private partnership.” Roko jumped, offering a bid in the mid-$300,000 range for the buildling and its 3.4-acre lot.

Tony Roko
Tony Roko photograph by Lians Jadan

Wilcox Mill isn’t the only former Ford mill in Plymouth’s 2,300-acre Hines Park that’s slated for potential redevelopment: Phoenix Mill, which was sold last year, will become a restaurant and banquet hall, while Newburgh Mill is currently on the market for $400,000. But Wilcox could have the grandest future.

Besides rehabilitating the building, Roko — who is stepping into the role of impresario — foresees comprehensive improvements to the property over several years. Lakeside fishermen would enjoy dedicated parking space by the building. Cyclists could fill up at a provided air station and even do a quick repair. And featured on the grounds, the proposed Inner Child Sculpture Garden would present three-dimensional realizations of kids’ drawings. The ground floor at Wilcox will be used for gallery space, and Roko envisions that kids will be exhibiting there along with guest artists. Flex space on the main floor could be used for socials with coffee and chocolate, for programming by community partners, and for music performance. Any of these events could extend into outdoor space. The upper floor would be dedicated to a living area and studio/showroom for the artist-in-residence. Roko will use it at first but eventually plans to host visiting artists through Art Foundation. “You hear about it more in New York,” he says. “They’ll fly in artists, and that artist will prepare for a show. It’s one of the oldest traditions in art, really.” His planning received a boost from Michael Boggio Architects and SmithGroup, which executed pro bono renderings of the potential space.

While Roko’s proposal for the mill — which Wayne County picked among several — falls in line with the county’s desire to offer more public space, not all local residents are on board. A group called Save Hines Park, in particular, contests the deal, fearing that selling the property to a private developer may lead to, say, a housing development versus more public space. Wayne County should “access grants and foundation funds and stabilize the structures,” says Nancy Darga, SHP’s leader, “then go out to a lease agreement with private developers to manage and operate something for the good of the public.”

Wayne County Economic Development Director Khalil Rahal says this is not a realistic plan: “The grant route is not a great philosophy,” he says. “It’s a philosophy of ‘we wish,’ or ‘if people would only just …’ We don’t want to govern that way.” Still, the county is looking out for Hines Park. “When we sell property, most of the time it goes back to the general fund, but we’re going to propose to our commissioners that [Wilcox Mill] money goes back into Hines Park,” he says.

Furthermore, the county has deed restrictions that will be able to protect the mills in perpetuity, says Annie Rubel, a preservationist at Clara and Henry Ford’s Dearborn
estate who’s been involved in fact-gathering for Roko’s project. “There’s no reason to be concerned that future owners could put in a gas station or Starbucks or condos. It is unfortunate to me that this particular project is being hijacked as a symbol of corruption and Not In My Backyard-ism because the actual facts and intentions of Tony, Greg, and the County Executive’s office point to this being a win for all those involved, including the folks who are against the project, ironically.”

Roko’s project will come up for consideration before the Wayne County Commission in the fall. The most likely route will be through a public meeting of the 15-member commission’s Committee of the Whole, and reviewing terms with Rahal and his economic development team. The committee would then pass the bid to the full commission for
final approval. If approved, the actual construction could start next summer, with a five-year timeline.

In the meantime, many important forces have aligned behind him — Roko claims commitment from public and private sources  — as well as the idea of selling the mill in general. The Michigan Historic Preservation Network and the Henry Ford Heritage Association both wrote letters supporting the sale to private owners (they don’t mention Roko’s plan specifically, as his proposal wasn’t made public until recently). “As a preservationist, I’m always excited to see when private citizens have the heart and will to preserve historic buildings, because it can’t always fall on the public [sector] to take on these costly projects,” says Rubel, who’s also a member of the MHPN. “It’s a beautiful thing that a community member with so many deep roots in the story of Ford, as well as in the area, would take on such a powerful project.”