Our Views: Count us among skeptics in plans to lure GM back

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Friday, May 9, 2014

In February, Bill Watson confidently told The Gazette editorial board that if he’s involved in a proposed industrial park along Interstate 90/39 at County M near Milton, the project will get done.

Many obstacles stood in his way, however, and local officials raised many concerns. Discussions have gone quiet.

Now, Watson says he’s “absolutely confident” he can lure General Motors to a plant he would build south of Janesville.

Watson’s hopes for his interchange and industrial park at County M and the freeway left us skeptical. Likewise, we’re skeptical of Watson’s latest idea.

As one reader said on this page Friday, “Watson is beginning to sound like a politician by promising the moon on a silver platter. We don’t need false promises.”

Indeed. False hopes are the last thing this community needs as it rebuilds its economy after the recession that began in 2008 and the closing of Janesville’s GM assembly plant.

Tuesday on WCLO’s “Your Talk Show” with Tim Bremel and in a phone interview with Gazette reporter Jim Leute, Watson said he believes a plant could lure GM or another automaker that wants to be within a day’s drive of 26 million people.

“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,” Watson told Bremel.

Getting the state to approve an interchange at County M and I-90/39 was only one obstacle to Watson’s industrial park plan north of Janesville. He needed local governments to cooperate. He needed to attract investors. He needed Milton or Janesville to extend utilities a long distance. He needed a reluctant landowner or two to agree to being annexed into a city.

Local officials questioned Watson’s lack of details. In recent weeks, talks fell off.

Now, Watson says, an automotive plant along the freeway south of Janesville makes the most sense, but he wouldn’t specify what parcel. Neither would he reveal which automakers he’s spoken with to bolster his optimism.

This lack of detail sounds familiar. Sure, behind-the-scenes discussions might be prudent and could pay off, particularly if developers need little government approval or oversight.

In his County M proposal, Watson was teaming with Janesville’s Jeffrey Helgesen, who has enjoyed remarkable success in attracting industries since the recession. This time, Watson is aligned with former United Auto Workers Local 95 President Mike Sheridan. Sheridan, former state Assembly speaker, did consultant work for Watson. Sheridan is running for state Senate, and before making his candidacy official April 26, he told The Gazette he believes GM can be persuaded to build a new plant somewhere in Janesville.

Sheridan was reluctant to discuss that, however, suggesting he didn’t want to come off as pandering for votes. Still, what was it our above-mentioned reader said about politics?

Perhaps Sheridan still has valuable Detroit contacts. If he, Watson and others can convince GM or some other company to build autos here, they would deserve much credit for bringing good jobs.

Look at GM’s moves in recent years, however. It focused U.S. manufacturing closer to Michigan supply chains. Besides, much auto manufacturing has drifted south, attracted in part by the lack of unions. GM, too, is among automakers using even cheaper labor in Mexico. Back in the U.S., GM owns the wide majority of its plants, but Watson thinks he could cut a deal to lease his plant.

If Watson is overconfident, it wouldn’t be the first time. If this idea materializes, we’d be surprised, and so would many other movers and shakers in this community.

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