Bill Watson confident he can bring GM back to Rock County

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Jim Leute
Tuesday, May 6, 2014

JANESVILLE—Developer Bill Watson said Tuesday he is “absolutely confident” he can convince General Motors to return to Rock County to build vehicles in a plant he would like to build south of Janesville.

And if he can't lure GM, Watson said he's just as confident he can attract another automaker that wants an assembly plant that's within a day's drive of 26 million people.

Watson appeared on WCLO's “Your Talk Show” with host Tim Bremel on Tuesday and talked by phone with The Gazette.

When Bremel asked Watson if his plan for a local auto assembly plant was a “build it and they will come” proposition, Watson said “if you do anything that makes economic sense, the guy you targeted it for will take advantage of it or there will be nine more standing in line to take advantage of that.”

Asked later by The Gazette for specifics on his plan, Watson said the facility would make the most sense on land along Interstate 90/39 south of Janesville. He would not specifically identify the parcel.

Watson and a group of private investors would build it to a specific automaker's specifications, he said, adding that there would be no taxpayer support, other than perhaps an Interstate interchange.

The group would own the facility and lease it to the automaker, he said, adding that such an arrangement would prevent the automaker from incurring massive construction costs. The lease, he said, would be structured so the automaker could leave at any time if the business was not profitable.

Such flexibility, he said, would open the door for other automakers.

Watson acknowledged that GM currently owns—rather than leases—the vast majority of its U.S. assembly plants.

When asked why he believes GM would be interested in leasing a Rock County facility or who among automakers he has spoken with have bolstered his confidence, Watson declined to answer. He said the answers—at least at this point—are best left out of newspaper stories.

In the five plus years since GM idled its Janesville assembly plant, industry analysts have waffled in their opinions about Janesville's future. Some said that if annual U.S. auto sales hit 16 million vehicles, GM might need the Janesville plant for some sort of production.

Others, however, countered that the aging Janesville facility was too far off a tightening production and supply loop that was consolidating closer to Michigan.

The U.S. auto industry is on track to sell 16 million vehicles this year, but not all of GM's North American plants are running at full capacity. In addition, the automaker has lost U.S. market share in recent years.

Watson said GM likely has no plans for its existing plant, and the community would be better served if it were given the site for redevelopment.

Essential to his project, Watson said, is a solid land-use “playbook” that sets out a clear set of rules that developers and tenants can live with. Long-term investors, he said, can't be asked to make significant investments that are subject to conditional-use permits that can change from council to council or board to board.

Asked on Tuesday's radio show if he would bring GM back to Janesville, Watson's answer was quick and blunt: “Yes.”

Bremel then asked Watson if that was an unequivocal yes.

“Nothing's unequivocal, but I'm trying as hard as I know how. …We'll do the best we can, and I'm confident we'll have them here.”

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