By J. Patrick Pepper
DEARBORN — The recent announcement of several million dollars in federal stimulus money for a new rail-based transit station could prove a boon for local businesses, but perhaps none more than the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.
As one of five stops on a new commuter rail route between Ann Arbor and Detroit, the station is expected to bring tens of thousands of new visitors to the city each year. Preliminary site plans have it located on eastbound Michigan Avenue at Elm Street, and part of the project is a pedestrian walkway over the railroad from the station to The Henry Ford’s northeast corner.
An informational video on the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit initiative produced by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments said the Dearborn station would be unique to the line.
“Unlike the other stations where feeder service is necessary to reach several destinations, The Henry Ford is the destination,” the narrator says.
The national historic landmark is already one of the most popular tourist attractions in Michigan, drawing 1.5 million visitors annually, but the built-in connection to a new rail line has the museum considering several new possibilities for growth.
We’re very excited about having the train station adjacent to the property,” said Christian Overland, vice president of museums and collections.
“One, it’s going to bring more tourism to Michigan. It brings tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of new people coming annually from Chicago and other areas. But two, and we think this is big, it will also be great for the other areas of Dearborn.”
Overland said the museum would build some form of welcome center where the pedestrian overpass will enter the village, near the Martha Mary Chapel and Smith Creek Farm.
The welcome center likely would feature various transportation options to get visitors around the 12-acre facility, he said. Model A chauffeur service, horse-and-buggy rides, and shuttle service for the Ford Rouge Factory Tour are just a few of the options Overland mentioned.
In addition to the new welcome center, the rail station also could increase educational tour opportunities. He said The Henry Ford has had a small Amtrak platform since 1997, mostly used for student groups, but only occasionally because of the sporadic commuter service currently running on the line.
With a more consistent schedule soon on the way, Overland envisions the museum offering increasingly more service aboard the “brain train.” “It can be a stretch trying to organize a field trip from Lansing all the way down here when you factor in the busing schedules,” he said. “But we have seen that there are a lot of schools interested (in train transportation) with the limited capacity we’ve operated the service in so far. This really just opens more of those possibilities.” Not to be overlooked, officials say, the rail station finally will provide a form of entrance to the museum from Michigan Avenue, which sees much more traffic than the current entrance on Oakwood. Having an entrance on Michigan also would provide a more easily accessible exit for motorists on Southfield Freeway, as opposed to the current Oakwood exit, which is more than a mile from the museum.