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Former Willow Run Plant Touted As Connected Vehicle Research Center

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Part of GM's former Willow Run plant. (credit: Paul Pytlowany/CBS 62)

Part of GM’s former Willow Run plant. (credit: Paul Pytlowany/CBS 62)

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YPSILANTI TWP. (WWJ) – General Motors’ former Willow Run plant is being positioned for redevelopment as a connected vehicle research center.

The announcement was made Thursday by Ann Arbor Spark, the economic development agency for Washtenaw County, and the RACER (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response) Trust, the agency created in March 2011 by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to clean up and position for redevelopment properties owned by GM before its 2009 bankruptcy.

In the plan announced Thursday, the Detroit-based contractor Devon Industrial Group will manage the dismantling and removal of the industrial buildings on the property, where bombers were built during World War II, supervising the Bloomfield Hills demolition and environmental remediation firm MCM Management. Then, Walbridge Development LLC, an affiliate of the Walbridge Group Inc., plans to redevelop the 332-acre property into a shared R&D center and test track for connected vehicles.

Based on input that Ann Arbor Spark solicited from private and public sector experts, the connected vehicle research center is being proposed as a place where precautionary testing is done before vehicles are deployed on the road and a proving ground for collaborative safety technology demonstrations.  It will also serve as a high technology research and development center that will allow companies to lease space for office and research use, garages, and other amenities, expanding the region’s business incubation and acceleration capabilities around automotive technology.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Ypsilanti Township, the surrounding community and all of Southeast Michigan,” Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo said in a prepared statement. “I believe this will usher in an era of collaboration and cooperation between the public and private sectors. This development will bring high-tech R&D, excellent jobs, a stronger tax base and be a source of great pride for our region.”

Added Elliott P. Laws, administrative trustee of the RACER Trust: “Finding a buyer and new use for Willow Run has been one of RACER’s highest priorities. This project fits perfectly with Southeast Michigan’s long-standing leadership in automotive innovation. I congratulate and thank Devon Industrial Group and Walbridge for their vision and spirit, and for their part in shaping what will be a very dynamic future for this region.”

Officials said the deal will not impede Yankee Air Museum’s campaign to purchase and separate a portion of the Willow Run Powertrain plant to serve as a permanent home for the museum and its collections.

Of the news, Paul Krutko, Ann Arbor SPARK president and CEO, said: “SPARK’s role as the regional economic development organization is to look for opportunities big and small to build prosperity. We identified automotive technology as a key area of potential and earlier this year drafted a white paper, Ahead By A Century — A Proposal to Develop A World Class Test Facility for Intelligent Transportation Systems and Autonomous Vehicles in Southeast Michigan, based on our findings. Working initially with Walbridge, RACER Trust and Ypsilanti Township, and longer term with other private- and public-sector partners, Ann Arbor SPARK is creating this new economic opportunity for the region that has the potential to generate significant investment and jobs.”

Officials with the companies said dismantling and removal activities are expected to begin this fall and take approximately 12 months to complete. At that point, Walbridge would buy the majority of the 332-acre property and begin redevelopment, subject to a development agreement with Ypsilanti Township. The development agreement would define the scope of the proposed connected vehicle research center and the number of jobs Walbridge would commit to attract as a result.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge of dismantling and removing such a large building in 12 months, but we share RACER’s and Walbridge’s urgency to get started on redevelopment and job creation, and that begins with our team’s performance,” said David Burnley Sr., CEO of Devon Industrial Group.

In a separate development, RACER is engaged in a land swap with the Wayne County Airport Authority, giving Willow Run Airport control of land it needed to better utilize an existing east-west runway without physically extending the runway. This land swap supports the airport authority’s long-term business development efforts. Full runway utilization had been constrained by the previous property boundary between the airport and RACER’s land.

RACER previously announced the sale of an adjacent building, the former Willow Run Company Vehicle Operations building, to International Turbine Industries, a jet engine repair and parts sales business.

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