Recycling America’s Abandoned Auto Plants

McClure’s Pickles made a name crafting handmade pickles in small batches from local produce. But the business was outgrowing its Brooklyn, N.Y., location.

American Axle
Photo by John Nathan Urbanek
American Axle

Founder Joe McClure, a Michigan native, began looking for a new pickle factory and decided on an unlikely location — an abandoned American Axle & Manufacturing warehouse in Detroit. The company had made parts for the Big Three automakers before the jobs were moved to Mexico last summer.

Global competition has decimated American manufacturing, but writing off Detroit and other Rust Belt towns is hasty. McClure and other small business owners and community leaders are proving shuttered American auto plants aren't eyesores; they're valuable assets worth saving with the right mix of community commitment.

“People call me and tell me stories that they used to work in the (Axle) building, and that they’re glad to see it being turned into a production facility,” says McClure, of the plant that's scheduled to reopen in June.

Reducing Building Waste

Compared to new commercial buildings, repurposing existing auto plants not only saves money but energy and the environment.

"Building waste is one of the largest sources of waste that is put into the waste stream," says Keith Bussey, a principal at the Boston Consulting Group in Toronto.

The U.S. generated about 170 million tons of building-related construction and demolition debris in 2003 — a 25-percent gain in seven years, according to a U.S.Environmental Protection Agency report.

Kenosha, Wisconsin
Photo by: Valerie Sathe Brugeman
Kenosha, Wisconsin

Turns out many communities are cutting waste by repurposing former auto plants for vibrant second lives. In Kenosha, Wis., a lakefront Chrysler site has been transformed into a marina and residential region that includescondos, public museums, an electric street car and restaurant.In Batavia, Ohio, a Ford plant has been turned into an education and industrial park.

"While it is impossible to regain all of the jobs and output associated with these plants, finding a new use for a site — especially a creative one — offers a beacon of promise for the neighboring community as opposed to economic despair," says Valerie Sathe Brugeman, project manager for the Center for Automotive Research, CAR, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

From Michigan to California

The center's 2011 report on closed and repurposed U.S. auto manufacturing offers examples of how communities restored closed plants.

Typically, community leaders start by wooing private businesses and securing public stimulus money, while attending local government meetings to broadcast redevelopment plans and win vital community support.

CAR originally focused on 447 large U.S. plants in operation since 1979. Of those plants that made cars or parts, 267 or nearly 60 percent have shuttered; and 128 have been repurposed so far. Most of them were owned by General Motors and are located in the Midwest.

No Need to Start From Scratch

When recycling plants and auto-related office space, the buildings are left intact. Their exteriors and nearby grounds are spiffed up, while interiors are refabricated for new uses.

For pickle operations, McClure was attracted to Axle warehouse’s sound structure; no need for a new roof or flooring. McClure focused on fixing the interior.

They ripped out hydraulic lifts and the car wash. “People joked that if you buy a jar of pickles you could get a car wash,” McClure says. The concrete floors were given an epoxy coating to withstand vinegar used to ferment pickles.

The renovation cost about $250,000, far less than that of a new plant. And McClure is keeping American Axle's old signage. "I like the look of them," he says.

While McClure’s Pickles wasn’t part of the CAR study, community leaders working to revive old auto plants know one another and share lessons learned. And one old business adage surfaces repeatedly. You can never over-communicate.

Successful project leaders attended local meetings, broadcast projects on public access TV, and sought community input. Leaders who “didn’t engage communities at first ran into roadblocks,” says Brugeman. “It takes longer in the beginning, but it’s absolutely worth it in the end.”

Inventrek Headquaters
Photo: Jerry Renkenberger
Inventrek Headquaters

High Tech in Kokomo, Ind.

Deep community commitment is what happened in Kokomo, an Indiana auto town where Chrysler looms large with four plants. In 2004, the community launched a technology park on a plot of land that included Delphi’s old administrative offices. The plant had been demolished. But the 98,000-square-foot limestone office building remained intact. “It was built in 1950 by GM and built like a fortress,” says Jan Hendrix, chief operations officer for the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance.

Hendrix and other community leaders were struck by the success of a research park in Purdue, Ind. Sure, Kokomo was churning out cars. But there was also a brain trust of engineers and information tech specialists.

“We figured out, ‘How can we grow based on the assets that we have?' " Hendrix says.

The recycled building houses a local college health-science program and a dozen start-ups. The community has invested about $3 million repurposing the site, "a fraction" of what it would have cost to construct the building and acquire the 32-acre site, Hendrix says.

And efforts to support the tech incubator extended beyond the office park. To attract young professionals, leaders improved Kokomo’s quality of life. They cleaned up downtown and added street landscaping and trails for walking and biking.

The upshot has been a revived community with a tech space that used to be a painful, idle reminder of America's manufacturing past. Times are changing for Kokomo and other communities that are reinventing abandoned auto plants. Says Hendrix, “We’re in the midst of a real transformative time here.”