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Posted on Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 6:02 a.m.

GM Willow Run plant's repositioning may hinge on Aerotropolis, Willow Run airport

By Nathan Bomey


Efforts to revitalize General Motors' Willow Run manufacturing plant may hinge on the success of the Aerotropolis initiative.

File photo |

The proximity of General Motors’ 5-million-square-foot Willow Run plant to Willow Run Airport - they’re located right next to each other - is emerging as a pillar of the marketing plan for the site.

Local economic development leaders, political officials and the company managing the 335-acre Ypsilanti Township site are optimistic that the complex could benefit from a push to attract more logistics and transportation companies to Southeast Michigan as part of the so-called Aerotropolis initiative.

The soon-to-be-shuttered plant’s repositioning would be a major boon to the Aerotropolis plan, which aims to leverage state tax incentives and renaissance zones to entice shipping companies to establish operations revolving around Detroit Metropolitan Airport and Willow Run Airport.

Increasing metro Detroit cargo traffic -- which dipped from 485.6 million pounds in 2003 to 464.9 million in 2008 and 357 million in 2009 -- is considered key to the Aerotropolis hopes.

The GM factory's "proximity to the airport we think makes it an attractive site potentially for possible manufacturing or logistics use,” said Tim Yost, a spokesman for Motors Liquidation Co., the legal entity created to manage the unwanted assets of GM after the automaker emerged from bankruptcy.

GM announced in June 2009 that it would shut down the historic Willow Run plant by the end of 2010. At the time, the facility employed more than 1,300 workers - though it had some 14,000 at one point in the 1970s. During World War II, the plant made bombers for the military. Today, the plant has about 320 workers left.

Motors Liquidation, working with a consulting firm called Alix Partners, is actively marketing the ex-GM plants that didn’t survive the company’s bankruptcy restructuring.

But local economic development leaders and political officials are also involved in efforts to attract a new user. Those officials have discussed ways to accelerate the Willow Run plant’s repositioning by highlighting its proximity to the airport.

Now they’ll have a new tool at their disposal: state tax incentives. The Michigan Legislature on Friday passed the Next Michigan Development Act, which allows local governments to establish collaborative groups with the authority to create tax incentive zones targeted at the transportation and logistics industry.

In anticipation of this bill, Washtenaw County, Wayne County, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, Belleville, Taylor, Romulus, Huron Township and Van Buren Township signed a deal to create the Aerotropolis Development Corp. to distribute tax incentives and handle permitting and other paperwork.

In 2009, GM paid $5.4 million in taxes on the property to Ypsilanti Township. Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo did not respond to calls seeking comment.

The Aerotropolis Development Corp. could hasten any plan to tie the GM Willow Run plant’s future to the airport.

“The idea that the airport as part of the Aerotropolis has major upside potential as a freight location is something that’s been talked about extensively. There is a lot of interest in further developing that concept,” said Michael Finney, CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK.

“To the extent that it would impact or include the General Motors site is not determined. But because it’s contiguous you’ve got to believe that if the airport as a freight hub takes off, the opportunities for that site are enhanced.”

Rolland Sizemore Jr., chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, said that transportation companies could consider using a piece of the GM property to establish operations right next door to the airport.

“There’s a possibility of them maybe using part of the Willow Run plant,” Sizemore said.

The GM plant’s proximity to the Willow Run airport could prove beneficial, but simply readying the GM property for new users will be a huge feat.

The building itself is 1.25 miles long. The plant is the size of about 110 football fields - that is, enough to swallow about 25 Walmart superstores.

Some outside companies, including a military vehicle refurbishing operation, showed interest in the site when it came onto the market in 2009. But “none of those came to fruition,” Finney said.

Of the 5 million square feet of facilities, about 1 million were upgraded in 2004. That part of the facility is viewed as particularly attractive to a new user.

“It’s pretty obvious to me that the idea of breaking it up and using maybe the (renovated) million square feet as the primary target for development might be a more viable option than finding a user for the whole site,” Finney said. “Some parts of it appear to not be useful.”

Much of the facility is outdated. Parts of the plant still have wooden floors, for example. Prospective new users would almost certainly have to make a significant investment in renovations.

The experience of another abandoned local auto plant may be relevant to the GM plant’s repositioning. When Ford Motor Co.-controlled Automotive Components Holdings sold its 1 million-square-foot Ypsilanti plant to Taylor-based tubular parts maker Angstrom USA a year ago, Angstrom decided to demolish about 250,000 square feet of the outdated facility as part of a 2-year renovation plan.

The lesson for GM Willow Run: Parts of the facility may have to be demolished under a new user.

“There may be need for some demolition of some parts of the site,” Finney said. “I just think everything needs to be on the table.”

Contact's Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's newsletters.



Mon, Dec 6, 2010 : 12:35 a.m.

Well, my take is these discussions are good news for Ypsilanti Township and Ypsilanti, in the future (hopefully). A major employer is needed to bring back the economic stability of these areas. One of the posters above is right on point. These areas have been hit HARD by the losses of Ford Ypsilanti, Powertrain Willow Run GM and the former Pontiac Plant Willow Run. It is welcomed news to read that Ypsilanti Township and Ypsilanti will have a seat on the board, where the recently passed, Next Michigan Development Act dollars are allocated. The City and the Township, truly deserves a voice, after all of the loses they both, have experienced. I hope the Ann Arbor News Online will keep this story updated, in the future. P.S. - If the project goes from the development/planning stage to actual reality; we need local school systems to develop our young citizens to work in the transportation industries. Let's hope Van Buren, Willow Run, Lincoln and Ypsilanti Public Schools will also be included in discussions, to develop the proper curriculum for future employment opportunities, if the ideas take off.


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 5:25 p.m.

jondhall, I don't think the government can force businesses to build in one area over another. I don't think Repubs or Dems can or will do that. But I'd like to see the industry that once thrived in Ypsilanti come back and put a plant in the area. ___________ Also, I can only imagine how polluted that area is...did you know they had their workers use lead paint to paint cars in the 60s and later? Then the workers had to have tests to see how high their lead levels were. Not much better than the coal mines back then. Anyone who thinks it was easy working in the plants didn't work in one.


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 4:53 p.m.

@Cash: Look at your senators they could do something, however they choose not to. The local politicians can only do so much. How about a movie studio, then we can kick them back 42% of what they spend. What a novel idea.


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 4:07 p.m.

Sometimes it infuriates me that Ypsilanti area with a relatively small population.... has been decimated by the loss of THREE Ford plants and various GM plants and yet it is rarely mentioned during talks about recovery. There's lots of talk about Detroit recovery and Oakland County recovery from auto job losses....what about Ypsilanti and Willow Run? Seriously it is as though someone sucked the life right out of the area over the past 25 years. It seems pretty clear that the major auto makers don't intend to do anything about the scorched earth they left behind in Ypsi.....but I pray that this possible airport expansion will bring the area back to life.


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 3:45 p.m.

Thanks Ray - Seems like it was your excellent commentary the other day about seeing the other end of the building. Having only been in there a few times, memories fade, but what an impression it made. It would be worth a few bucks to have a good tour of the place. Hmmmm.... Do you happen to know whether there is/was a tunnel connecting the plant with another airport building (terminal? tower?) at the east end of the airport? Just curious. Thanks again.

Ray D. Aider

Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 1:33 p.m.

Or also, as an afterthought, it could be used as a hangar or airplane repair & maintenance facility as well as a warehouse. No problem there.

Ray D. Aider

Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 1:24 p.m.

@AlphaAlpha Over 33 million floor blocks were made from Henry Ford's sugar maple trees. 75 years later, the blocks remain quite functional." Many, many of the original floor blocks have been replaced over the years. I remember whenever a flood happened in a dept., which was usually from a coolant tank's pump not shutting off at the proper time or something, the blocks would swell up and bow and cause large (10-12 feet or so rough diameter) sections to actually lift up off of the floor 12" or so. They would tear the sections out and replace them. BTW, for those having a hard time visualizing the type of blocks that are there, they measure about 3" thick x about 4" x 5", and are brown in color because they were treated with...have mercy...CREOSOTE! But yes...literally MILLIONS...plural! Some areas have concrete floors treated with an anti-slip coating, but ALL of the aisles and most of the 5 million square feet is wood blocks. No reason to assume that this would be discouraging factor for a potential occupant. "If you or anyone ever gets an opportunity to see the inside, do so. Someone else here accurately stated that generally, standing inside near one end of the building, you literally cannot see the other end." If you stood in the middle of the plant on a main aisle and looked either way, you cannot see the other end. It's hard to describe. The aisles have huge hanging mercury vapor light fixtures every 50-60 feet or so, and if you try to focus where the end should be, it simply becomes a blur. Think of an artist's perspective study going into, let's say, infinity...heh heh. One half of it is in Wayne Co. and the other half is in Washtenaw so it's hardly infinity. But the common man rode bicycles because if you worked near the airport and had to go to the Administration building at the other end, it's a long, long walk. Management and skilled trades had three wheeled scooters and other electric vehicles. In the opinion of someone who spent 30 years there, you know what I think they should do with it? Build airplanes. It's the perfect facility for that. Just ask old Henry. Otherwise, it is one heck of a warehouse. Scroll to bottom.


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 12:03 p.m.

I find it humorous that the word "proximity" causes an issue, while the word "aerotropolis" is allowed to slide :-) I am pulling for redevelopment of the site. If there is to be any manufacturing in Michigan, this would be a good spot. It is a brownfield site, so that should eliminate some of the paperwork. The location near the airport and the UofM, as well as the available manufacturing talent should be helpful.


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 10:56 a.m.

Amen Edward.


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 10:44 a.m.

Haven't they kicked this idea around for some time now? I thought they did. Would be an excellent way to get the economy moving in the area again. Plus Detroit Metro is so overwhelmed right now moving cargo to this area would be a boon. I really hope to see this go and not become a dinosaur eyesore.

Wystan Stevens

Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 10:35 a.m.

David, the difference between shut and shuttered is five letters, not six. "All the stores were closed AND shuttered All the streets were dark and bare In Ypsi no scarlet ribbons.... '


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 10:28 a.m.

Mr. Bomey - It's too bad so few citizens have been inside the Willow Run facility. The utter enormity of it is remarkable. The largest building in the world when built, it literally changed the outcome of WW2, by building the B-24 heavy bomber literally 25 times faster than any other manufacturer could achieve. Nearly 10,000 were built. At peak production, over 50,000 people worked there. Think about that. About 30 acres of floor space is not just renovated, it is near state of the art for manufacturing; the remainder is quite usable. And, so you know, many prefer standing on the compliant maple block flooring vs. concrete. Over 33 million floor blocks were made from Henry Ford's sugar maple trees. 75 years later, the blocks remain quite functional. If you or anyone ever gets an opportunity to see the inside, do so. Someone else here accurately stated that generally, standing inside near one end of the building, you literally cannot see the other end. There is a particular office hallway upstairs offices which is one half mile long. Who knows what the future holds for this historic facility. Hopefully, the West will rise again...

Keith A. johnson

Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 10:01 a.m.

Please tell me that these comments are really just sarcasm and for the purpose of entertainment! This whole deal could be a huge economic boost to this area and some out there what to comment on the use of BIG WORDS! Lift your standards slightly and elevate you language to that above a homey from the hood. Which one of you needs to have the word elevate explained to them? Now if i may, wasn't freight operations already the prime use of this facility? After Detroit Metro opened it pretty much left Willow Run to handle the predominatly Auto Parts Shipping. In fact if I recall correctly, wasn't Willow Run second in the World to Honk Kong in freight shipping at one point? I work in the Airline industry and know of all the experienced talented Aircraft Technicians in the immediate area and this would be a huge step in their personnal recovery.Good Luck with this project..


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 9:56 a.m.

It's too bad that some people find simple words like 'proximity' to be difficult or complex. Maybe there are children posting comments here and so these rather simple words don't seem se simple to them. As far as the difference between 'shuttered' and simply 'shut', please allow me to clarify that difference. Shuttered means the structure will have shutters installed on the windows to prevent vandalizm whereas shut simply means shuting the doors.


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 8:57 a.m.

@ David There aren't any journalists writing for this publication, however your point is well taken!! the dog


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 8:51 a.m.

Yea, and why do journalists always have to use words that nobody else uses? Its like they've got their own little clique and need to constantly show that they are in it and better than the people they (supposedly) are writing to. Case in point: Why are places "shuttered" and never just "shut"? What do the extra six letters do?

Craig Lounsbury

Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 8:43 a.m.

your certainly easily offend Mr huronbob. As I type this it appears I will be the second post....right next to yours. But if somebody or bodies out there is/are a couple key strokes ahead of me I might be the third or fourth post. In that case I will still be in close proximity to yours but alas not right next to it.


Sun, Dec 5, 2010 : 7:03 a.m.

"The proximity of General Motors 5-million-square-foot Willow Run plant to Willow Run Airport - theyre located right next to each other" I love that sentence... I love that the writer assumes that I don't know the definition of the word "Proximity" ("The state, quality, sense, or fact of being near or next"), nor do I have the intelligence to actually look up words I might not understand, therefore he has to define the word for me. And I love that, although he KNOWS I won't understand the word "proximity", instead of just saying that the plant is "next to" the airport, he uses the word "proximity" AND says it's "next to" the airport (because, of course, he then shows us that he knows a word that is just a mystery to us! Carry on...