Yankee Air Museum plan could save part of Willow Run bomber plant from wrecking ball
- Update: Demolition of Willow Run Powertrain facility now on the table
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The Yankee Air Museum's effort to move to the former Willow Run bomber plant could save part of the factory that turned out B-24 Liberator bombers during World War II from the wrecking ball.
The museum, which has launched a $6 million campaign to allow it to move into part of the former Willow Run Powertrain Plant, has until Aug. 1 to secure funding, a deadline agreed to by the the museum and the building's owner, the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust (RACER).
If the money is not raised by the deadline, that part of the plant will be demolished.
AnnArbor.com file photo
“That’s where bombers rolled out the door during World War II," he said.
The bomber plant was about 2.5 million square feet when it was built. The portion the museum wants to buy is the hangar at the end of the assembly line. The rest of the plant is likely to be demolished, the Detroit Free Press reported.
Norton said the plant is an enduring symbol of the nation's war effort and all that went with it. "Women in the workforce, the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’, all of the very neat things people don’t know about that happened at Willow Run.’
Norton said the museum is looking to move from what it considers its temporary home on the east side of the Willow Run Airport in Van Buren Township and Wayne County west to the plant in Ypsilanti Township.
The original museum was destroyed in a 2004 fire that also claimed eight aircraft, uniforms, medals, and thousands of artifacts valued at more than $4 million. It celebrated its grand reopening in 2010.
The renovated 185,000-square foot building would allow the Yankee Air Museum to store all of its planes and other items under one roof. Currently flyable planes and the museum are in separate facilities, and around 15 airplanes sit outside where they can’t be viewed during winter for lack of space in their current 40,000 square foot building.
Norton said the current set up just doesn’t work to operate the museum. The bomber plant has its original wood floors, 50-foot ceilings and large bay doors officials say make it an ideal location.
“We just can’t get everything in here and there’s no room to expand,” Norton said, noting that there are infrastructure limitations that prevent the museum from expanding where it currently sits.
He said the cost of renovating the existing building is estimated at about half of what the museum would need to spend if it built a new structure.
Additionally, the Yankee Air Museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute and has been working through it to acquire one of the four B-24s made in Willow Run that are known to exist. Norton said, because of lack of space, the museum probably won’t be able to get it without the bomber plant renovation.
Plans also call for a 1,000-person capacity conference hall, which Norton told the Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees would be the largest in the county.
The museum is turning to private and corporate donors to make the fundraising effort happen so quickly, Norton said, as most foundations wouldn’t be able to provide money on such short notice.
Among the challenges to renovating the building would be building new walls when the area surrounding it is demolished and essentially bringing it up to code. But Norton stressed that still costs about half of constructing a new building.
“We can do a lot with this building if we pull it off,” Norton told the Board of Trustees.
The Yankee Air Museum has raised $1 million towards a new facility in previous years but success of the current campaign to rebuild part of the plant requires an additional $6 million.
Board members expressed excitement over the project.
“We’re very thankful that RACER did extend an agreement. This is a great opportunity not only because of economic development and tourism, but also to preserve history. And not just local history but U.S. history,” said Supervisor Brenda Stumbo.
Officials involved with the project said it would create hundreds of jobs both in construction and for permanent operation of the museum.
The bomber plant space the museum wants to space is 175,000 square feet of the nearly 5-million-square-foot Willow Run Powertrain Plant facility. The Yankee Air Museum would purchase a total of 840,000 square feet — or about 19.3 acres — from RACER. The remaining space would include parking for 700 vehicles.
General Motors closed the plant in 2010. The RACER Trust took over 89 abandoned GM properties on March 31, 2011. It was charged with selling, repositioning and cleaning up all the sites.
RACER officials told AnnArbor.com earlier this month they were in active discussions with several companies who were interested in the facility. The company announced April 2 that International Turbine Industries, an aircraft maintenance firm, purchased the former General Motors Willow Run Company Vehicle Operations facility.