Team to weigh redevelopment options for GM stamping Manufacturers

Indianapolis' last industrial behemoth left from its century as an automotive manufacturing hub is about to shut down after shrinking for years.

On June 30, the long-planned closing of General Motors' massive stamping plant near Downtown will finally come, leaving an environmental trust armed with $3.7 million to clean a milelong site where auto parts have been made for nearly 100 years.

Closing the Near-Westside landmark is a legacy of a shrunken Detroit auto industry scaling back citywide: Ford just pulled out of the Eastside steering gear plant, Chrysler razed the Near-Southside foundry, Navistar shut the Eastside diesel plant.

"It's going to be a sad day when it closes. I kind of grew up in this place," said GM autoworker Bob Speece, 59, from the Center Grove area in Johnson County.

"But I've got to do what I have to do. I'm just glad I have someplace to go."

While city officials try to figure out what might come next for the 100-acre site -- parks, condos and small factories have been mentioned -- many of the 650 workers already can see their future. General Motors' surprising rebound in the car market this year has opened up jobs in distant plants.

"Just about everyone who wanted to go somewhere has transferred,'' said Gregory Clark, the now-retired bargaining chairman of UAW Local 23.

Speece and about 300 co-workers are transferring or already have gone to GM plants in places that include suburban Detroit; Marion, Ind.; and Parma, Ohio, according to the United Auto Workers union's Region 3 office in Indianapolis.

Last week, GM idled about 140 workers, leaving about 150 in the plant for final tasks, such as packing machinery or preparing it for auction. Most of the remainder have retired.

"We're a big empty warehouse, pretty much," Speece said last week. "There's nothing running in here. I'd say GM has moved out 99 percent of the dyes."

Long before the skyscrapers and hotels rose Downtown, and the economy keyed up more than 100,000 office jobs, GM, Ford, Chrysler and International Harvester, the predecessor to Navistar, together employed as many as 12,000 workers.

Their high wages were regarded as the Cadillac standard of industrial Indianapolis. The jobs sustained another 40,000 or so other people such as butchers, dentists and bus drivers reliant on autoworker spending.

Allison Transmission remains open from that era on the Westside, although it is geared to heavy work trucks rather than the market for sedans and pickup trucks that supported the four behemoths.

The stamping plant was the eldest of the old pack. GM grew up buying its suppliers. In Indianapolis, the automaker acquired metal stamper Martin-Parry in 1930, although the small houses near the Martin site speak of a much-earlier origin.

Opening in 1884, Martin soon employed 2,800 workers, according to early reports. Ornate ads of the time called it the world's largest wooden wagon maker, turning out buggies, surreys, spring wagons and carts.

Within a generation, those skills were repurposed into producing metal body parts for GM, which had overtaken Ford as the No. 1 automaker in 1927 and hungered for industrial capacity.

Cheap freight rates helped the stamping plant rail its products to vehicle assembly plants in distant cities. But as GM lost market share and contracted in the 1990s, the Indianapolis stamping plant turned out to be a geographic island.

No vehicle assembly line was close by. And shipping costs were rising as energy prices climbed. By 2007, GM decided to shut it down, along with a pair of other stand-alone stamping plants, at Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids, Mich.

Dialing down
Although the sign has said GM for 81 years, no special closing ceremonies are planned for the stamping plant, other than the quiet internal ceremony in April.

Like an old piece of furniture, its best days are in the past, when it was part of a much-larger company. GM says it employs 49,000 autoworkers today in the United States, compared with about 126,000 a decade ago and nearly twice that number in the 1970s.

Although GM has been running the plant, it hasn't owned the property for two years. During its 2009 bankruptcy, General Motors emerged as a new legal entity guided by the U.S. government and let go of the stamping plant and a vast swath of industrial capacity.

The discarded facilities remained part of the pre-bankruptcy GM, which was renamed Motors Liquidation Co. and given the mission of selling off the old properties.

GM announced in 2007 that the plant would close this year. Briefly, the company tried to sell the facility, but that plan fell apart when union workers voted to resist wage cuts, sealing the plant's fate.

In March, Motors Liquidation handed ownership of the stamping plant to Racer Trust of Washington, D.C.

Racer was created under the auspices of the bankruptcy court to clean up and dispose of 89 facilities discarded by GM in 14 states. Its official name is Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust. The trust is headed by former Texaco environmental executive Elliott Laws, senior counsel at the Washington law firm Crowell & Moring.

Cleanup time
Provided with $600 million by Motors Liquidation to take care of contaminated soil and water on the properties, Racer hired a Dutch firm, Arcadis, to do the work. In Indianapolis, several soil borings were taken recently. The results are being analyzed.

"We expect the data to come back in the next week or so," said Robert Hare, Racer Trust cleanup manager in Indiana and five other states. "We don't know if we'll find things. There hasn't been a whole lot of (environmental) investigation done on it over the years."

Racer allocated $3.7 million for the cleanup, Hare said, based on data gathered earlier at the Grand Rapids and Pittsburgh stamping plants. The Grand Rapids plant also received $3.7 million for remediation. That site was soiled by spills of chemicals such as tricholorethylene.

"Whatever we find and whatever is there, our objective is to plan a remediation around the development of this site," Hare said. "We don't want to hold up its development.''

Spills may have run off into the nearby White River, but if the chemical remains in the soil, Hare said Racer might bury it under a few inches of topsoil. Remediation requires preparing the site for industrial use at Racer's expense.

A contingency fund covers cleanup costs that exceed $3.7 million, but Racer does not have to pay for getting the site ready for housing, Hare said. Cleaning an old property for dwellings often costs more than preparing it for industrial use.

A future developer that aims for housing might have to pay on its own for a further cleanup, such as carting the contaminated soil to a secure landfill.

Just what happens on the site could be shaped by a team affiliated with the Urban Land Institute. It will arrive June 19 for a four-day study.

Mayor Greg Ballard invited the team, which is headed by Bill Hudnut, a Georgetown University real estate professor. Hudnut helped preside over Downtown's renaissance as mayor for two terms in the 1980s.

No one is quite sure what to do with the old site. Nearby residents hope someone builds condos, brings in light industry and links the area to Downtown with a new bridge over the White River. Hudnut's team will make a recommendation on redeveloping the site and attracting financing, but he said he isn't sure yet what to do.

"I came out in the middle of May and looked at the site and toured it. It's a monstrous building," Hudnut said recently. "We want to come up with a plan with a good tie-in to Downtown. We'll have to figure out a good way to connect the property to Downtown. It's awkward now."

Whatever happens requires Racer's consent. The Washington trust owns the property.

Racer won't pitch in cash for developing the property. It can sell the site to a suitable developer for a fair market price, said Patricia Spitzley, Racer's deputy redevelopment manager.

No deals are in the works, but even if one was imminent, Spitzley said city officials must like the project before Racer will approve the sale.

Spitzley won't join the Hudnut team but said she will confer with its members.

"Our charge is to help those communities impacted by the closure," Spitzley said.

"We should be in lockstep with what the community feels is a good deal."