Remember that $25 million “legacy fund” city officials wanted General Motors to create as a parting gift?
It was a novel, if unrealistic, idea.
Last year, City Manager Mark Freitag invoked the past philanthropy of Parker Pen in asking GM to contribute money “in honor of the many generations of General Motors employees who served you over these more than nine decades.” The fund would have helped with economic development efforts.
But this week, the city got something far more valuable than a pot of money from GM: The sale of its shuttered automotive plant to a company with ambitious plans to redevelop the site starting next year.
“The best legacy we could leave is to make sure we have the right partner here,” said John Blanchard, head of GM’s government relations division, referring to the site’s buyer during a news conference Thursday.
Not that we’re warming up to the vehicle manufacturer that put hundreds of people out of work when it closed its Janesville plant in 2009, but Blanchard makes a good point.
Redeveloping the GM site, even if that means razing the buildings on the property, would mean more to Janesville than anything else GM could do (short of reopening the plant itself). Not even a $100 million legacy fund would be worth having the site sit vacant and overgrown with weeds.
If the site’s buyer, Commercial Development Company, turn outs to be the responsible partner portrayed by Blanchard and Commercial Development CEO Randall Jostes, Janesville residents have every reason to feel optimistic about the sale.
Jostes called the site’s infrastructure—complete with two railway spurs and industrial power supply— “incredible” and predicted work likely would begin in the spring. He didn’t provide many details about the types of businesses expected to locate there but noted a “truck manufacturer” has expressed some interest.
We had previously criticized Commercial Development for its refusal to respond to The Gazette’s requests for comment while the site’s sale was pending, but Jostes put those concerns to rest with his willingness to field questions for nearly a half hour at Thursday’s news conference.
He also showed empathy and understanding for the community’s attachment to the former GM plant, which opened in 1919 and at its peak in the late 1970s had more than 7,000 employees. It was more than an employer. It was the working-class soul of Janesville.
“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.”
Jostes struck the right tone and said the right things at the news conference. Residents should give Commercial Development an opportunity to deliver on this “bright” future, one that will hopefully make GM’s departure feel like a distant memory.