Other cities show what could have been done with GM plant

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Nico Savidge
Monday, December 16, 2013

JANESVILLE--On the same day General Motors' last SUV rolled off the line in Janesville, a similar scene was unfolding 400 miles away at GM's plant in the small town of Moraine, Ohio.

A few days earlier, a Chrysler plant in Newark, Del., had closed its doors for good as well.

In one December week, these three cities lost the massive American auto plants that once helped define their communities and provided thousands of jobs.

Since then, however, local officials in Newark and Moraine have moved to reinvent their communities and reuse their former plant sites, rather than let them sit vacant.

A direct comparison between the communities isn't entirely fair—for one, a university spurred economic development, and another benefited from a larger nearby city.

Thanks in part to major advantages Janesville hasn't enjoyed, however, Newark and Moraine show what communities can do in the same time frame, when faced with a similar challenge.

Newark has been the most successful of the three when it comes to bringing jobs back.

A town of 32,000, Newark's identity had long been two-sided, said Michael Smith of the Greater Newark Economic Development Partnership.

As home of the University of Delaware's flagship campus, it's a college town; the Chrysler plant meant it was blue collar, as well.

When the plant closed, Smith said, officials wondered, “What do we become now?”

There was talk about keeping the plant ready for another auto manufacturer, he said, but that changed less than a year after the plant closed.

“The biggest blessing of all was that the University of Delaware did acquire that site,” Smith said.

After buying the property in October 2009, the university tore down the old Chrysler plant to make room for its Science, Technology and Advanced Research campus.

Bloom Energy, a California manufacturing company, announced last year it was opening a plant at one building on the campus. The plant will employ 900 people once it's at capacity, Smith said.

A second building is still under construction, Smith said, but will house the university's College of Health Sciences, as well as private companies. Though he didn't have an estimate for how many jobs will be in that building, Smith said it is 90 percent occupied and scheduled to open in January.

“The city's handled it above and beyond what everyone expected,” Smith said.

Moraine has had less success bringing jobs back to its plant but similarly positioned itself to attract new businesses.

California-based Industry Realty Group, which specializes in buying and refurbishing former automotive plants, bought Moraine's GM plant soon after it closed.

“One of the most successful parts was really getting it in someone else's hands,” Davis said.

The company kept the plant standing but has fixed it up to make it attractive to potential tenants, Davis said.

Progress Park, as the site is called today, now has a handful of tenants employing about 100 people cumulatively, Davis said.

Because Moraine was once a regional employer and hopes to be one again, it benefits from regional support. Moraine itself has about 6,000 residents, but sits just outside Dayton—a much larger city of 141,000 with a metro area nearing 1 million people.

Davis and local economic development officials are working to attract more businesses, thanks in part to the eight-county Dayton Development Corporation and the state's development group, JobsOhio.

One project in the works could bring as many as 800 new jobs to the plant, according to the Dayton Daily News.

Neither Moraine nor Newark has recovered the thousands of jobs lost five years ago, but each has made significant changes to its former automotive plants and started the long process of reinvention.

Lacking a major city nearby or a university, Janesville has faced a tougher road than those cities, and hasn't been able to do much with its plant because it stayed in GM's hands in standby status.

As Moraine and Newark reach the same anniversary as Janesville this week, however, they do so with new jobs and new employers at sites that are ready for new industries.

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