A new bridge is dawning in Detroit. Matty Moroun isn’t the only one unhappy.

Gregg Wards owns the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry and has become one of the biggest champions of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, even though it will put him out of business. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Gregg Ward is a nice guy with a lousy view. His family business overlooks Detroit’s hell on earth: the hulking, pitch-black U.S. Steel plant on Zug Island whose blast furnaces belch 30-foot plumes of fire.

Next door, mixing trucks kick up dust at a massive concrete operation, the air is so thick that black grime coats street signs. Sometimes, when the wind shifts, the scent of chemicals gives way to feces from Detroit’s nearby wastewater treatment plant.

“You never get used to it,” sighs Ward.

He may not get the chance. Ward owns the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, a barge that carries trucks loaded with hazardous materials – paints, solvents, whiskey and acids –  across the Detroit River. It will soon become obsolete and close when the $4.5 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge to Windsor opens in about four years.

Photos: A truck ferry offers a rare, gorgeous glimpse of Detroit River​
Related: Michigan leaders want to make crumbling Detroit fort into national park
Related: Along Detroit River, city treasures and rare cars hidden in bubble wrap

But for a man with a dying business, Ward sure seems happy. He says he’s at peace with his fate, so long as the new bridge benefits the public and not his nemesis: Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who owns the 88-year-old Ambassador Bridge just to the east.

“A new bridge is out of my control, but it’s a good project that makes all the sense in the world,” says Ward, 57, of Dearborn.

“It’s good for national security. It’s good for redundancy, and it’s good for Detroit.”

But some in the path of the bridge are not nearly as thrilled.

There’s the Moroun-linked company that owns the Ambassador Bridge, of course. The company, which proposes to build its own, parallel span, is suing the state of Michigan to block condemnation efforts of 20 parcels necessary for the Gordie Howe bridge, which Canada is funding. The project can't proceed without that land.

And there are other business owners in the footprint of the bridge, as well as neighbors of surrounding properties, who say the process hasn’t always been smooth.

“It’s very difficult to do a project of this magnitude, with all the governments involved, and expect everyone to be perfectly happy,” said Jeff Cranson, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“But it’s for the greater good of both countries.”

The border crossing is the busiest in North America one of the richest in the world, carrying some $340 million in trade daily. Officials on both sides of the border have lobbied for a new bridge for at least 20 years, citing traffic snarls, security concerns, the age of the Ambassador Bridge, and ongoing headaches with its private owner.

Welcome to America

Ward has feuded with Moroun since 1990, when he began his barge business, which is reportedly the only one of its kind. The grudge may last longer than the Delray neighborhood that binds them.

Once the home of Hungarian immigrants, the slab of forlorn land hugging the river in Southwest Detroit is changing by the day.

The Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry parking lot overlooks the monstrous U.S. Steel plant on Zug Island, whose blast furnaces spew open flames into the sky. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

Bulldozers are clearing 4,000 trees, while 200 homes have been demolished. On a pleasant April morning, Ward drove around the neighborhood, pointing out the boundaries of the planned, six-lane, 1.5-mile bridge

Just outside the footprint are ramshackle homes with small yards filled with junk. They will stay.

“Welcome to America,” Ward says.

Related: Goodbye to Delray, the Detroit enclave residents are getting paid to leave
Photos: Fond memories and burned homes: That’s Delray, the woebegone corner of Detroit

Every day, work crews are clearing more land in the Delray neighborhood of Detroit to accommodate the bridge. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

All told, 229 homes and 88 businesses will be condemned through eminent domain, according to the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, the government agency overseeing the construction of the Gordie Howe bridge.

Some 95 percent of U.S. properties required to be moved for the new bridge have been purchased, and construction contracts should be signed in September.

A few holdouts remain, including Moroun. The lawsuit over the land is due to be heard in July in Wayne County Circuit Court.

At a forum last month, Gordie Howe Bridge officials said they aren’t worried.

“This project isn’t going to happen. This project is happening,” Heather Grondin, vice president of communications for the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, told about 50 residents in Southwest Detroit at a community meeting.

“We’ve already signed $350 million in contracts, and work already is underway. We are moving ahead regardless of other activities people may be having.”

About a dozen businesses remain in the footprint of the bridge in Delray, and more are leaving every week. Most aren’t getting enough for their land, contends attorney Alan Ackerman.

“Matty made it tough. No doubt,” said Ackerman, an attorney for about 14 businesses that have been condemned by the state for the project.

“Do I disagree with him? To an extent that it’s made it harder to negotiate for my clients. But he’s a businessman who is trying to protect his investment. It’s inevitable Matty and MDOT will come to an accommodation.”

Crews are cutting down some 4,000 trees in Delray for the bridge, prompting the owner of Delray Mechanical Corp. to post signs begging for mercy. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

Ackerman’s clients include Gordy Ebsch, the owner of Delray Mechanical Corp., an industrial welding business the state condemned in July.

Crews are cutting trees so fast outside his business on South Port Street, he wrapped one with signs in orange paper pleading: “PLEASE DON’T CUT DOWN THIS TREE! MDOT HAS NOT PURCHASED THIS PROPERTY FROM US.”

Ebsch wants to temporarily relocate and then move back to Delray to service bridge construction subcontractors. Planning how to make that happen consumes 18-30 hours per week.

“I’m not whole. Not when you are offered less than you paid for it 20 years ago,” he said.

“I’m not making widgets. I need to be out by my customers. ... We offer great service because we are close by and we can respond quickly.”

On the other side of the river, Canada compensated owners in the path of the project years ago. “The Canadians get a better deal. No question,” Ackerman said. “Their eminent domain process pays better and more.”

Ackerman, a long-time eminent domain attorney, nonetheless called Michigan’s negotiations “the most sincere effort I’ve ever seen from a government.”

Cranson, the MDOT spokesman, said state law sets the standard for compensation and caps it at 125 percent of appraised value. He noted that hundreds of homeowners and renters in Delray already have been paid (through Canadian funds) and relocated.

Andrew Doctoroff, a senior special projects adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder, said he "knows of no similarly situated property owners on the other side of the border who were treated better than" those in Detroit. He said state officials are "bending over backwards to preserve jobs and ensure businesses that can relocate."

A separate program administered by the City of Detroit (and also funded by Canadians) aims to entice occupants of 350 homes surrounding the Gordie Howe Bridge to relocate.

A resident eyes plans for the Gordie Howe International Bridge during a recent community forum in Southwest Detroit. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Unlike Windsor, Detroit has attached conditions to the program that allows residents to receive a city-owned home in another Detroit neighborhood. The program is worth up to $60,000, but residents must be current on their taxes and water bills.

The effort was launched this year, and so far no residents have relocated.

“They’re not really telling anyone anything. They should be knocking on doors to get us out of this neighborhood,” said Robert Dzbankski,  a former disc jockey who says he’s been disabled since he was in a motorcycle crash caused by a drunk driver.

“All day long, we’re going to hear the rumble of construction when this starts. Just ‘boom, boom, boom.’ Oh no, I like my windows open. I’m ready to get out.”

Some homeowners have been matched with homes even though they have yet to relocate, said state Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit.

“There are probably ways to improve it, but we recognize this is the first time a program like this has happened,” Chang said. “I’m optimistic that, by residents offering input, we can make it better.”

‘We should be better’

Back on the Detroit River, tractor-trailers carrying flammable, corrosive radioactive, explosive or oversized materials rumble down a dusty road onto Ward’s barge.

They’re carrying whiskey from Windsor’s Hiram Walker plant, windmill parts, foundry corrosives and the like. On the hour, a tugboat, the Stormont, leaves the dock.

The 1-mile trek across the river passes by Detroit’s industrial underbelly and reminders of days gone by, like a sign advertising the long-closed Boblo Island amusement park

The barge glides past blast furnaces spewing smoke, concrete companies churning rocks, and fishing boats dropping lines.

Over the years, Ward says he’s become a champion of a publicly owned span not only because it would increase security and improve the flow of traffic at the Detroit-Windsor border, but also relocate residents out of Delray.

“I don’t believe that in 2018 in America, people should be living in the shadow of belching industry,” Ward says. “We should be better than that.”

Ward will be 61 when the new bridge opens, and in need of another job. He isn’t being compensated for the likely loss of his business, say Michigan and Ontario officials, who praise his commitment to “the public good.”

Like so much in Delray these days, Ward has no idea what will happen then.

“I try not to think about it,” he says. “I guess I’ll figure it out.”

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Dave Maxwell
Thu, 05/03/2018 - 3:41pm

How would you propose that we make steel other than flames belching out of the plant? Your bias is loud and clear.

Fri, 05/04/2018 - 9:23am

What a misleading title for this article! It should have been "Some people are happy."

Alex Sagady
Fri, 05/04/2018 - 12:17am

On this...
>>>> blast furnaces belch 30-foot plumes of fire.
>>>>the monstrous U.S. Steel plant on Zug Island, whose blast furnaces spew open flames into the sky

There are "no blast furnaces emitting 30 foot plumes of fire" or spewing "open flames into the sky" on Zug Island. While the writer may perceive that is what he is seeing, that isn't what is happening and such conduct at a steel industry blast furnace would never be allowed by either U.S. EPA or the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

What you're seeing with the flames in the video on Zug Island are not flames released from blast furnaces. The flame sources you see are flare towers, not flaming blast furnaces. Both U.S. Steel and ESS Coke operate flare towers to dispose of gas they cannot otherwise use or during emergency conditions.

Both blast furnaces and coke ovens continuously generate gas that is usually used either in firing the coke ovens or firing stoves under metal melting or other furnaces on site, or at U.S. Steel facilities in River Rouge/Ecorse, and at the DTE Energy River Rouge Power plant.
When all of these gas-using facilities cannot take all of the gas being generated, then the gas must be burned safely in flare towers. The flare towers are safety devices that prevent
explosions and harm to workers at U.S. Steel and ESS Coke.

Future shutdown of the DTE River Rouge power plant, which burns coal, natural gas and syngas from coke/blast furnace, may lead to more flaring in the future unless U.S. Steel and/or ESS Coke figure out a productive way of using their gas volumes, perhaps in some kind of gas combustion turbine. This is almost certainly one of the reasons why the River Rouge power plant has not already shut down all of their units....just one remains running presently to the best of my knowledge.

Sun, 05/06/2018 - 8:31pm

The Mexican community and the Black community have been replaced by urban renewal and by freeways in Detroit. There was not so much as a TV documentary and no relocation Monies offered too many of the people who had to move. Much of it was done by eminent domain. Maroon did not build a stadium with school tax money for which he gets Perpetual profits. He never close the school. He never paved over our beautiful Belle Isle to race cars on it. And he never wrote a predatory mortgage. But he's everyone's favorite Boogeyman. If maroon did not get the bridge built I doubt if you or I would. Snyder getting the bridge offers no comfort to the people of Michigan who have been poisoned by him, who schools have been closed by him, who have lost their voting rights due to his actions through emergency managers despite repealing the law. Wake up.

Thu, 06/21/2018 - 11:07pm

I really thought they were buying over here Fort and Cavalry st.it is so loud you need earplugs to sleep. Stuff on my wall and shelfs keep falling.all my walls have cracks everywhere some places plaster has falling.the traffic is so bad.they bought alot of the houses over here but 6 in the area but only 2 or 3 someone lives in. I hope they decide to buy these out.