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Tuesday, 17 January 2012 09:52

Repurposing the nation’s auto factories

Written by  Rod Kackley
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WEST MICHIGAN — When old automotive factories close, communities don’t have to lose hope, according to a December 2011 report from the Center for Automotive Research on repurposing former automotive manufacturing sites.

CAR highlighted the reinvention of the former Delphi Coopersville plant, which had produced fuel injectors for engines, into the Continental Dairy facility for powdered milk manufacturing and milk processing operations.

The report found that 60 percent (267) of the 447 auto manufacturing plants in operation since 1979 have closed, although 48 percent (128) of those facilities have been at least partially repurposed or are in the process of finding a new life.

While the transformation of the former GM plant in Kalamazoo County’s Comstock Township — now known as Midlink Business Park — is not mentioned in the CAR report, most would also see it as a another success story.

The next life of the GM stamping plant in Wyoming could be a success story of a different kind.

All three communities are taking different paths in their redevelopment of these old auto plants. One plant is still standing, the other was gutted and the third is being demolished.

The Comstock Township GM stamping plant was a massive 2.2-million-square-foot building that included its own indoor railroad. That plant was cut into two pieces offering 1.6 million square feet of flexible tenant space, 286,000 square feet of basement storage space and 37,000 square feet of office space. The site featured 240 acres for build-to-suit opportunities and CN and Norfolk Southern rail service.

The Delphi plant in Coopersville didn’t compare to that facility — it is a relatively small 300,000-square-foot complex on 125 acres — but it had some real advantages, such as the comparative youth of the buildings. The plant opened in 1980 and closed in 2006.

Just as their counterparts did in Kalamazoo, Coopersville and Ottawa County officials had to learn new economic development skills when it came to putting together packages that would work for their communities and attract developers.

It is no different in any of the communities impacted by auto plant closings, according to the CAR report.

“While each community with a closed automotive facility faces unique challenges, this report helps shine a light on how community engagement, a focus on flexibility and the involvement of the private sector, nonprofit groups and all levels of government can help them recover,” Jay Williams, director of the Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, stated in a release.

The partnership that turned the old GM stamping plant in Kalamazoo into Midlink Business Park included Midlink management, Comstock Township, the city of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo County and the MEDC.

Together, the governmental and business entities were able to get 110 acres designated as a tax-free Renaissance Zone and land a $3 million grant to build two miles of public roads.

That sort of cooperation is textbook for any community facing a similar challenge, according to the CAR report.

The authors cite the effort undertaken by Ottawa County, Coopersville, MEDC officials and Continental Dairy to bring the Delphi plant back to life. Federal officials got involved, too. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development funding program helped pay for an upgrade to Coopersville’s wastewater treatment system. City officials were also able to upgrade their water system to better position Coopersville for future economic development.

Ottawa County officials committed their $31 million share of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money to the Continental Dairy project. Company officials also met with local, state and county officials to put together a complete incentive package.

The Midwest has more empty auto plants than any other region in the country, and Michigan would seem to have more than its fair share. West Michigan does not get away unscathed. In addition to the GM stamping plant in Comstock Township, Wyoming city leaders are currently witnessing the demolition of the city’s former GM stamping plant.

The 36th Street facility is a 110-acre, 1.3-million-square-foot monster that did not survive the GM’s reorganization. Motors Liquidation agreed to transfer the site to the city of Wyoming for redevelopment.

The CAR report looks at facilities that are still standing, but that isn’t the only way forward for communities of shuttered auto plants. Wyoming City officials are taking an entirely different course of action. They are knocking the 36th Street stamping plant to the ground, believing it will be much more developable as a “vacant, quality piece of property.”

“We just do not believe the market exists for 2-million-square-foot properties,” Wyoming City Manager Curtis Holt told MiBiz. “The annual utility bill just to leave it standing was $2 million.”

The CAR report also documents the impact on communities that lose these auto plants. Quite simply: It hurts. As the report’s authors noted, “the impact is both broad and deep.” Hundreds of thousands of jobs lost across the U.S. when these auto plants started closing will probably never be replaced because companies like Continental Dairy don’t need as many workers as did GM, Ford and Chrysler pre-1980.

The report concludes, “The best outcome for a community is usually to keep automotive facilities operating in the first place. When that is no longer an option, these closed facilities represent challenges and opportunities for communities to reinvent themselves by finding new, productive uses.”

Here’s a positive takeaway: “Beyond seeking new automotive investment, automotive communities have assets in their technological base, educational infrastructure and skilled workforce. Capitalizing on these assets is paramount to moving communities forward,” in a team effort with civic and community leaders, along with assistance from state and federal officials.

The report finds even more good news: Communities across Michigan and all over America are figuring out how to do this and are doing it right.

“It was particularly surprising to learn how many communities have had some success in repurposing former automotive sites,” Valerie Sathe Brugeman, the study’s lead author and project manager at CAR, stated in a release. “Many communities have found ways to recover and at least partially restore property values and employment.”

Read 4492 times Last modified on Monday, 13 August 2012 12:58

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