Pfizer closing in Ann Arbor feels like a lifetime ago
The calendar doesn’t lie: Five years ago, Ann Arbor learned that its largest private employer was closing.
The news, as I wrote at the time, made “all of Ann Arbor reel from the blow.”
At stake was the looming vacancy of 2 million square feet of offices and labs, the pending loss of 2,100 jobs, the unending questions about what it meant for the future.
Five years later, that January day in 2007 it feels like a lifetime ago instead of 60 months.
There’s also the short conversation with a trusted source who nervously called that same weekend to tell me that I shouldn’t be surprised when news come from New York that ould be devastating to Ann Arbor.
And I recall the shock of learning on a Monday morning that, indeed, Pfizer was planning to leave Ann Arbor. The impact, at that moment, seemed enormous.
The enormity of the moment grew into a specter that dominated Ann Arbor as it strove to keep its balance while its world was shifting.
We talked about leadership and mobilization and how losing Pfizer was a regional problem and not happening in a northeast Ann Arbor bubble. We fought to keep the employees in Ann Arbor by urging more startups and hiring. We anticipated who could be hurt amid the loss of tax base, payroll, home owners.
Yet somewhere on that road to keep the Pfizer closing from devastating Ann Arbor, the route blurred.An economic downturn turned into full-blown crisis by fall 2008, letting Ann Arbor know that uncertainty was defined by far more than 2,100 lost jobs and a 2 million square foot vacancy.
And a few months later, the University of Michigan stepped into the void, landing the real estate bargain of a lifetime when it purchased the campus for $108 million. Suddenly, we knew what would happen to the property. Not the details, but the direction: It was coming off the tax rolls as it rolled into U-M’s vision for its research and future.
That move was soothing, in a way. We all had more to worry about at that time.
Today, considering the Pfizer experience, it feels like Ann Arbor experienced a happy ending. The number of U-M employees at the campus has moved from dozens to hundreds to about 1,000 today. Someday, I’ll even stop calling it the “ex-Pfizer property.”
Getting to that place hasn’t been without hurdles. I lost neighbors. My children’s elementary school lost parent leadership and my kids lost friends. Home values fell, businesses lost regular customers, nonprofits lost a benefactor. The city lost tax revenue.
But all of that happened as the world was changing, too: Jobs were lost. Retirement funds eroded. Industries faded. The nation worried about its future, and our state fared poorly.
Looking back, that seemed to make the worry and planning over the Pfizer departure seem like practice for the bigger crisis.
The initial fears about Pfizer’s loss to Ann Arbor simply had to fade. At some point, while the city was rebuilding, we even became that “bright spot” so often mentioned when people talk about Ann Arbor’s role in this state.
I know I’m not alone in thinking that January 2007 seems like a very, very long time ago.
I don’t look backwards. None of us really can: We still have to fight that bigger fight to get Michigan and the nation back on track.
But I can say that the experience did make us stronger. Beyond that, it just feels like distant history.