A generation ago, the economy of the Kalamazoo area was described as a three-legged stool, resting on the sturdy foundations of Western Michigan University, pharmaceutical pioneer Upjohn Co. and a huge General Motors plant in Comstock Township.

Well, what used to be Upjohn was bought and sold several times, and has cut its research employment in the Kalamazoo area. And that GM plant closed in 1999.

As for the Upjohn shutdowns, Kalamazoo responded with a concerted effort to get laid-off Upjohn/Pfizer researchers to “stick around,” and many of them did, filling a new research incubator called the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center with startup pharmaceutical and medical research companies that employ hundreds. Several companies have graduated from the incubator.

Less well publicized is the story of the former Fisher Body plant. But today it’s humming again, with 13 new companies and hundreds of employees. It provides an object lesson to the communities struggling with what to do with the more than 75 manufacturing plants across North America that remain idle since Detroit’s Big Three automakers began shuttering operations in 1980.

Kaiser Aluminum has invested more than $100 million in the Kalamazoo plant where 150 workers are now turning out parts for the aerospace, defense and other industries. Seneca Medical Inc. set up a distribution center for medical and surgical supplies inside the old factory while it builds a new one on 10 acres it acquired on the campus. Numerous smaller companies have leased space. And a new 95-room Candlewood Suites hotel opened on the site in the fall of 2009.

“When General Motors closed the plant in 1999, we had a potential white elephant on our hands,” said Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First, the region’s economic development agency. “Instead, we viewed it as prime real estate midway between Detroit and Chicago and we moved quickly to capitalize on the opportunity. It’s since risen like a phoenix from the ashes.”

Southwest Michigan First worked closely with Los Angeles-based Hackman Capital Partners and public and private partners to transform the dilapidated 2.2 million-square-foot facility and the 340 acres surrounding into a start-of-the-art business park. The new owners invested about $30 million to revamp the massive building, splitting it into two buildings with a truck bay between them, and giving it new lighting, paint and landscaping for better commercial appeal.

Now dubbed Midlink Business Park, the site is bustling with activity with the two buildings about 80 percent occupied and bulldozers clearing the site for Seneca Medical’s new 80,000-square-foot distribution facility. Midlink President David Smith says the park is currently targeting manufacturers that would benefit from being in a Michigan tax-free Renaissance Zone, as well as retailers, restaurants and others to support the cadre of new businesses that now call the old GM plant home.

For details, visit www.southwestmichiganfirst.com.

(c) 2010, WWJ Newsradio 950. All rights reserved.


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