Commercial Development Company CEO Randall Jostes made an outsize entrance Thursday as the brand-new owner of the former General Motors plant in Janesville.
The 6-foot-5-inch CEO picked up the wooden podium in the city council chambers at City Hall, jokingly hoisting it from the floor to move the microphone closer to his face during a press conference the company had called.
“You’re just meeting us. We’ve been watching and looking at you for quite some time. We’re excited to be here,” Jostes said in his address to city officials and a peppering of local residents and media.
The crowd laughed at the ice breaker and listened intently as he explained what’s in store for the defunct assembly plant that Commercial Development officially acquired this week.
Jostes said his St. Louis redevelopment firm most likely will tear down most or all of the 4.8-million-square-foot GM complex starting in March or April 2018. The company then likely will regrade the site and ready it for potential new industrial developments, likely by late 2018 or early 2019.
“We should have it ready to induce vertical development in about a year’s time,” he said. “Maybe give us an extra six months. We might run into a snag; we might have more of this or more of that than we anticipated. Certainly by spring of 2019, we should be coming out of the ground with new (industrial) uses.
“What we envision is kind of a multiple hundred-thousand-square-foot industrial facility, everything from logistic centers to heavy industry and light industrial uses. That’s our concept,” Jostes said.
Some of the redevelopment, he said, might come via other developers working with Commercial Development. He said the company’s first goal is to get the property readied for redevelopment.
When Commercial Development’s work starts, it will conclude the GM plant’s historic run in Janesville.
From the 1930s and 1990s, the plant reigned as the city’s biggest and most powerful industry. It has languished since 2009 after GM placed it on standby status.
In 2015, after a wave of contract negotiations between the UAW and GM, the plant was taken off standby status, decommissioned and put up for sale.
Commercial Development announced in September that it was trying to close on the property, and on Wednesday, the St. Louis-based company and GM both announced the sale was final. Both companies declined to give details of the sale or a sale price during Thursday’s press conference.
GM officials yielded the floor mostly to Commercial Development as the site’s new owner, and Jostes devoted about a half-hour of the press conference to answering questions from the media, officials and residents.
Jostes said Commercial Development has been working on plans for redeveloping the 300-acre site for about a year.
He said his company plans to spend “tens of millions of dollars” on environmental remediation, demolition and readying the site for redevelopment.
It’s almost certain that all or most of the former auto plant structures on the property will be demolished.
“We believe we’ve looked at every possibility of preserving some of the structure, but it doesn’t look like that’s possible. We haven’t ruled it out completely. So it looks like we’re going to have to demolish the 4-million-square-foot facility,” Jostes said.
Commercial Development plans to preserve industrial electrical infrastructure at the plant because it’s a major draw for reuse, Jostes said. He also called the site’s set of two rail spurs an asset that’s “hard to come by.”
He called the plant site “spectacular” and its infrastructure “incredible.”
Jostes said there’s a chance that Commercial Development could leave 100,000 square feet or so of the plant in place for a potential project that could bring a “truck manufacturer” to Janesville.
Jostes told The Gazette the interest in a section of the plant was a “nibble” by a company that came in the last two months.
“It’s a truck manufacturing firm. They have an interest in being situated in the part of the facility that’s closest to the rail spurs on site,” Jostes said. “We’ll do whatever we can to position the facility” for that option.
For some users, leaving at least part of the former GM facility standing might make sense, Jostes said.
Commercial Development has imploded buildings before, including a power plant on the Michigan-Canada border. But Janesville’s empty plant would be deconstructed in stages, Jostes said, with the first step being asbestos removal in the buildings, starting in the coming weeks.
That would be followed by removal and crushing of foundations and other concrete, along with a systematic demolition of the plant that would recycle as much material as possible. Some of the demolition might be done by local contractors, Jostes hinted.
Jostes and City Manager Mark Freitag said the city will work with Commercial Development to determine where nonrecycled material is taken. It’s not clear if some rubble and debris from the plant could end up in the city’s landfill, although Freitag indicated the landfill might take some of the material.
Commercial Development said it has agreed to take on environmental liabilities of the property. Jostes said in the past the company has completed necessary environmental cleanup of its properties, even if the cost has been greater than initial estimates.
The sale means that GM is freed from ownership of a facility it has operated since 1919. At one time in the late 1970s, GM has estimated that more than 7,000 people worked at the Janesville plant. Its history includes manufacturing of vehicles that ranged from tractors to early cars, pickup trucks and, in later years, fully-loaded SUVs.
The city in 2016 asked GM to consider setting up a $25 million “legacy fund” that would “enhance economic and workforce development and sustain community development”—sort of a parting gesture from a company that had been the core of the city’s economy.
John Blanchard, who heads GM’s government relations division, said Thursday that GM has no intention of setting up such a fund. Blanchard said GM’s negotiations with Commercial Development to buy and redevelop the former plant constitutes a legacy in itself.
Freitag said the sale of the plant and its likely demolition comes with more than a note of sadness because it closes a chapter of Janesville’s history.
But he said the sale also represents an “entirely new chapter” in Janesville, one he believes residents should be excited about.
Freitag gave Commercial Development and GM officials tokens of the city’s gratitude during the press conference, including military-style “coins of excellence” that he handed to them in a ceremonial handshake.
One resident brought a double-tiered plate of brownies to share, and the city decorated the council dais with several potted poinsettias.
Commercial Development plans to work with local historians to try to preserve some elements of the plant. For instance, Jostes said his company found one clay tile stamped with an original date from the plant’s earliest years.
He acknowledged the difficulty some residents will have when the walls of the former auto plant start to fall.
“As you see the old structure go down, you might have a tear in your eye. You’re going to think of the memories. You’re going to think of the great jobs. You’re going to think, ‘I had an uncle, a grandma, a grandpa work there,” Jostes said.
“But once it’s down, you’re really going to get a sense of what the future could be. And the future will be very bright. And we’re going to be committed to it.”