Months before the Detroit City Council approved the Riverside Park land swap with the Moroun family on July 28, Wayne State's investigative reporting class was in session.
Each spring semester, the journalism department offers COM 5310, or Investigative Reporting, to give students 40 hours to deeply investigate a single topic of interest in one week.
This spring, COM 5310 professor and former Detroit Free Press investigative reporter Joel Thurtell chose to investigate the controversial Riverside Park land swap agreement between the city of Detroit and the Moroun-owned Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns the Ambassador Bridge. This deal gave the bridge company a portion of the city-owned Riverside Park in exchange for up to $5 million dollars for park improvements.
The students produced a 50-page report that looked into various details of the land swap, as well as the complicated relationship between the city of Detroit and DIBC owner Manual “Matty” Moroun.
The class was also able to find the mayor’s office involved in suspect activity as it failed to release public documents during business hours—a right that is guaranteed by the Michigan Penal Code. This behavior by city officials might give credence to the ongoing push for more transparency within the Duggan administration.
Links to the class’s findings can be found below.
- Detroit International Bridge Co. pays for political influence
Proposed second span of Ambassador Bridge raises concerns in the community by Hassan Kalifeh, Arab American News
City Council Approves Riverside Park Deal by Amber Harvey, WDET
City Officials Knew of Ambassador Bridge Company's Unauthorized Work by Amber Harvey, WDET
After the class came to an end, many questions regarding Mayor Duggan’s deal were answered—yet many others were raised.
The students now ask whether it makes sense to empower the DIBC to build a second span when considering the current conditions of the 86-year-old Ambassador Bridge. While a 2009 safety report from a private company gave the bridge a “fair condition” rating, it also listed numerous hazards presented by its broken-down main deck, corroded steel and crumbling guard rails.
The class's questions about the history of Riverside Park revealed the property’s long and complex history. The students learned about the various members of the community who fought to free this recreational and sentimental hub from Moroun, who would stop at nothing to acquire the land that is most integral to him expanding his international bridge monopoly.
Through research, students discovered that a previous gas manufacturing plant at Riverside Park caused the soil contamination. The hazardous material was found eight feet beneath the soil in the park’s extension by the DIBC, in spite of the fact that the company did not own the land to test. While the park has been shut down since 2013 for remediation, the clean-up is nearing completion.
Perhaps some of the most poignant information that the class uncovered in its investigation was the effect of the deal – as well as Moroun’s history – on the local community. The students learned that, while residents are being levied with blight fines, Moroun's various companies have a number of vacant and debris-filled properties, and the city has yet to collect its thousands of dollars in fines. Only one fine has been imposed for the Moroun-owned Michigan Central Train station, according to the city of Detroit's website. The class now questions the fairness of how the city handles blight for both residents and businesses.
Finally, the students took a look at how the media has covered the Morouns over the last 15 years, and found that the media has been relatively mild in their coverage of events regarding the DIBC. In looking at article hits over time they found an interesting pattern of coverage. Moroun enjoyed a lot of silence from the media for many years. This ended in 2008 when both Detroit dailies, the Metro Times and the Windsor Star doubled or tripled their Moroun coverage. One reason for the spike may have been course instructor Joel Thurtell’s blog post on Moroun, where he details how he was illegally kicked out of Riverside Park by a security guard working for Moroun. The media coverage of Moroun continued to rise until the end of 2012 where the number of articles fell back to little or no coverage.
In the end, many questions were left unanswered, mostly because of the limited time of this course. But much was learned. It became clear that this deal was not so upfront and not so tit-for-tat. Moroun has inched one step closer to building a second bridge and he will stop at nothing to accomplish his goal.