How Closing Manufacturing Plants Can Be Transformed into Community-Saving Business Ventures


Hit hard by the slowdown in the marketplace and higher fuel prices, Ford Motor Company recently experienced its largest quarterly loss in its 105-year history. With people evacuating their fuel-inefficient vehicles, Ford is experiencing its delayed rude awakening about the unsustainability of an auto industry geared towards producing pickups and sport utility vehicles. Despite plans to introduce six small cars made in Europe to the U.S. market, Ford today announced another 10 percent reduction in salaried payroll costs and will cut as many as 2,200 salaried jobs by January.

The oldest Ford plant still in operation -- the Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul, Minnesota -- will be the epitome of the changes to come. With plans to shut down in 2011, an additional 900 jobs will be lost in a plant that used to employ 2,000 workers. Communities throughout the state have already experienced the brunt of the country's economic downturn, Minnesota having lost 50,000 manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2006 alone, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

"We're just hemorrhaging," states former United Auto Worker (UAW) official, Lynn Hinkle, who retired over a year ago from a 30-year career at the Twin Cities Ford plant.

Yet something unusual is in the works that could change the future of this 140-acre manufacturing site and convert it into a model for green manufacturing. A coalition of the local UAW 879, McAllister University students, and affordable housing and environmental groups have formed the Alliance to Reindustrialize for a Sustainable Economy (ARISE) to design a green manufacturing site. The ARISE project is currently being considered by the Minnesota Legislature under Senate File 607 as a way to transition workers into a mixed-use facility for green manufacturing.

ARISE is re-envisioning how people look at industry, which historically has collided with the environmental movement. Their reindustrialization plans serve as an opportunity for industry to play a key role in the green economy.

"It is becoming increasingly clear to people in the union movement that our job security is dependent upon the new energy economy," states Hinkle. "If you're about family sustaining jobs, you have to connect global warming solutions and jobs otherwise you're going to have neither."

Ford's current training center would be converted into a green jobs training program for onsite wind turbine manufacturing and installation, and light rail car production. A plan to expand the light rail system is in the works to reach out to surrounding, traditionally low-income communities, which have been working with ARISE on the reindustrialization plans.

The Ford plant, located on the Mississippi River, is already connected to a hydroelectric system, which produces 18 megawatts of hydropower, and has powered the plant for over 80 years. Additionally, there exists a maze of tunnels onsite that were originally dug out for silica, used in making glass for windshields. These tunnels may be used for ground-source heating.

"We believe there's enough green energy sources on site to go totally noncarbon," says Hinkle.

With 140 acres, the coalition has the space to get creative with its envisioning and holistic approach. Businesses would be brought in to develop retail shops on the lower levels of buildings with affordable, residential units above. Walkways up and over the buildings would connect rooftop restaurants and bars to urban gardens with beautiful views of the Mississippi River. To connect the shops to the light rail, small electric vehicles would be produced onsite.

Throughout the last century, manufacturing jobs and industry have played a significant role in the growth of cities and development of communities by providing families with low entry-level jobs. Communities cannot afford to continue experiencing the off-shoring of their manufacturing jobs, especially during the current economic downturn. ARISE's plan is to develop this site as a prototype for turning brown fields, or old industrial grounds, into green manufacturing sites to support green jobs and sustainable community development.

Student group Summer of Solutions -- in partnership with economic justice organization, Global Exchange -- sees the future of their generation invested in this project.

"If we're going to build the green economy, we have to start here," says McAllister graduate Joseph Adamji. "The green jobs movement and the whole idea of shifting and expanding economic opportunity are to make social changes happen. As much as this project is about the Ford site, we need to use it as a model for how we develop communities, intentionally and sustainably."

City planners hope to see this space used as a central hub for sustainability projects for St. Paul and beyond.

"We could redevelop old manufacturing cities like Detroit and bring economic opportunities and prosperity," states Adamji. "We're trying to say that industry can play a role in the green economy."

Decarbonize, reindustrialize, equalize, is what ARISE is saying. The new energy economy can be used to battle lagging economic opportunities and social inequity. ARISE hopes to inspire communities -- from Flint, Michigan to Richmond, California -- to decide how they want to develop a new sense of community. Reindustrialization can be part of this process by formulating ways to generate green energy, mass transit, higher density and energy efficient buildings, and affordable housing.

"This is an opportunity to change the landscape literally and figuratively," says Hinkle. "What a great basis to rebuild the union movement. It's an opportunity for the green union movement to emerge, where unions can stand center stage and create aspirations for our entire society."

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