Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who Will Clean Up the Shoes?


After the news broke that there will be a federal trust fund created to clean up various GM sites across the country, I ventured out to Wyoming's 36th St. Metal Fabrication plant to get a quick shot of the mammoth factory as it stands now. It was one year ago this month that the last regular shift workers left the plant; after downsizing, union concessions and even an upgrade to the facility, the hope that the plant would remain operating had been extinguished. The only workers left would be a few working on dies for the Chevy Volt, and some others who were tearing down the machinery to ship to other sites. At one time the plant had employed up to 3,000 workers; as of closing time they were down to around 700. On May 29th, 2009, they filed out for the last time.

gm36thsignTwo million square feet of empty, toxic space would remain, no one knew for sure what was going to happen to it. Not only was the city of Wyoming losing its biggest taxpayer, who wants a 100 acre lot with a building that holds two million square feet of space? And who could ever afford to clean it up? The city had a huge problem on their hands, and the thought was it would remain empty for years; maybe boarded up, a certain target for vandalism, a headache to police... no one knew.

Until now. Now we have word that this site will get the funding it needs to get the toxic pollutants out, perhaps even money towards demolition, as well as property tax bills and site security. This is a godsend for the 36th St site, and for 89 other sites across the country - 47 in Michigan alone - that will split $836 million in what is being dubbed the "largest environmental remediation trust agreement in the nation's history". The City of Wyoming will be waiting for studies from the EPA on the cost of cleanup, and will move forward from there. They might end up demolishing the building (it is 80 years old), they might try to market it as it stands, perhaps dividing it up. With highway and rail access nearby, it should be a very desirable location to market to companies - and the hope being that cleaning up these sites will draw the big renewable energy manufacturers to the state. People like GE, for example.

Michigan has set up a program called Project Phoenix designed specifically to market these large industrial sites, but we certainly didn't have the money to clean them up. Brown field tax credits were about all we could offer. It's going to take years to redevelop these sites, but it will happen a lot faster now that the environmental issues will be taken care of. With certain Republican candidates threatening to dismantle some of our economic development efforts, hopefully we can move quickly and get some of these companies lined up before uncertainty sets in once again.

gmshoes2What struck me the most about 36th St. though was that one tree in front, decorated in Christmas-like fashion with the hard hats and shoes of the employees. One year later, the ghosts of livelihoods lost stood as a reminder of something that went a lot deeper than just an empty building or one company's bankruptcy - it was the people, scattered to the winds. Some took early retirement, some opened new businesses and pursued personal dreams, some entered worker retraining programs, some transferred to other GM plants. Wherever they went, they aren't here anymore - and only these mementos remain.

Eventually those will disappear as well, either to new development or the brutal Michigan winters. It would be nice to see them preserved somehow, as a testament to the generations of people that worked there, but of course that is improbable.

And that's why some of us like to take pictures. Gotta get down to the Packard plant one of these days...