Land Grab: How a bridge baron ruined a neighbourhood

By Claire Brownell

It was early April in 1996 when the men in suits came knocking on Clifford Head’s door.

Clifford’s son Terry Head was home at the time, and remembers it like it was yesterday. The men were lawyers from the Ambassador Bridge company, and they were there to offer his father a deal.

Clifford could sell them the home at 670 Indian Rd. where he had lived since 1950, the year he built the house and many others in the neighbourhood. Or he could live with a massive truck plaza the company was planning to build in his backyard.

The truck plaza was coming whether he sold his house or not, Terry remembers the lawyers saying. The offer – $134,000 cash for his home, plus legal and moving expenses – wasn’t coming around again.

Clifford and his wife took the deal and moved to Amherstburg. Two years later, he died.

“I remember thinking, ‘It’s a good thing he can’t be here to see this.’ It would have broken his heart to see what they had done to Indian Road,” Terry said. “It was one of the most beautiful streets in Windsor. We had those high canopy trees. The whole roadway was covered over with trees. The neighbours literally would cut their lawns with hedge trimmers. They were immaculate.”

Thirteen of Clifford’s Indian Road neighbours also took the men in suits up on their offer that spring, with the deals all closing on their homes in the 600 and 700 blocks on the same day – May 21, 1996. Because the bridge company kept the homes reasonably well maintained and occupied by renters until the mid-2000s, nobody really noticed.

Now, of course, it’s easy to tell which homes the bridge company owns. They’re behind chain link fences, with a security company’s logo stamped on the plywood covering the doors and windows, shingles and siding peeling off a little more each day.

A painstaking analysis of property records conducted by The Star reveals that spring day in 1996 was just the beginning.

The analysis identified 182 total real estate transactions involving the bridge company or affiliates, with billionaire bridge owner Matty Moroun spending a total of $52 million on Windsor property. Since the bridge company often registers the ownership with numbered corporations or lawyers, it’s possible it owns even more Windsor real estate than that.

Moroun spent the bulk of that money — $31.9 million – on houses, apartment buildings and residential vacant lots in Sandwich from the mid-‘90s to the present. That’s $2 million more than Moroun spent to purchase the Ambassador Bridge itself in 1979.

Those homes have fallen so far into disrepair that they’re currently only worth about $13 million, according to assessment records.

Gerry Head, another one of Clifford’s sons, said his father was lucky to get one of the early offers to sell before the neighbourhood really started to crumble. But he also feels for the people who now have to put up with the nuisance caused by the condition of the home he grew up in.

“I went by one time when it was boarded up and the fence was up there. I thought, this is crazy. I felt for the neighbours across the road, because we grew up with all of them,” he said. “He didn’t realize they were just going to fence them off and let them rot.”

In addition to the homes on Indian Road and other streets to the immediate west of the bridge, Moroun also owns most of the homes that back onto a rail corridor south of Bloomfield Road. In the past, the bridge company has said it wants to turn the rail corridor into a feeder road for the bridge.

Other property owned by Moroun includes waterfront land at two sites that a long-term binational study group of U.S. and Canadian government departments floated as potential locations for the Detroit River International Crossing 10 years ago. One of those sites is on Riverside Drive East at Lauzon Road and the other is in Sandwich along Russell Street, just west of the Ambassador Bridge.

Moroun also owns two trucking and warehousing hubs, one northwest of E.C. Row and Huron Church Road and another just east of Devonshire Mall. Finally, and curiously, he owns a single downtown condo unit on the 23rd floor of the Royal Windsor on Pelissier Street downtown.

The bridge company ignored repeated requests for an interview with Moroun. Unable to ask the man himself, the best anyone can do is make an educated guess about his long-term real estate strategy in Windsor and Detroit.

The Moroun business empire extends far beyond the bridge and some boarded-up homes. In September, Forbes estimated the 86-year-old’s net worth at $1.5 billion, making him one of the 400 richest people in the United States.

Moroun goes to great lengths to keep the extent of his holdings private. His family’s business interests are made up of a complicated web of companies that change names frequently and are privately held, making them difficult to trace.

A 2006 investigation by Star reporter Dave Battagello identified 50 trucking companies, 24 real estate companies, five insurance companies, four duty-free companies, three customs brokers and a handful of additional companies involved in car rental, communications, logistics, air cargo, construction and rail – all associated with the Moroun family. It all ties into a tidy money-maker: When Moroun’s trucks pay a toll at the bridge, buy gas at the duty-free pumps and make insurance payments, the money just ends up in a different arm of the same business operation.

Moroun extends the same strategy to his real estate holdings in Windsor. A total of 17 different Moroun-affiliated companies – including trucking companies, numbered companies and companies with vague, tough-to-trace names like “Properties Management Inc.” — were listed as owners on the property records analyzed by The Star.

Click here for a list of the affiliates who have bought properties for Moroun.

Lawyers, often with the Toronto law firm Himelfarb Proszanski LLP, will also sometimes be listed as trustees in the initial purchase. This is another way of disguising the real owner of the property.

On July 30 of 2009, Moroun transferred the vast majority of his Windsor real estate, previously held by a complicated network of affiliates, to the Canadian Transit Company — the bridge company’s Canadian arm. Effectively, that put his ownership of the property out in the open.

Why he did that is anyone’s guess, especially since he still doesn’t seem particularly eager to chat about it.

Originally posted in the Windsor Star