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January 20, 2016 – Detroit Free Press, Matthew Dolan

New center could allow for extended test drives for connected and autonomous vehicles in Ypsilanti Township in Washtenaw County at the old General Motors plant site.

Testing the auto industry’s latest technology could find a new home at Willow Run, according to Gov. Rick Snyder.

GM's Willow Run transmission factory in October, 2009
In October of 2009, this what the GM Willow Run transmission factory looked like. (Photo: Romain Blanquart Detroit Free Pr)

Snyder said in his state of the state address Tuesday night that he is working with Michigan’s congressional representatives to develop a center to allow for extended test drives for connected and autonomous vehicles in Ypsilanti Township at the old General Motors plant site.

“We are still the heart and soul of the auto industry. Make no mistake about that,” Snyder said Wednesday night. Administration officials said this week that a number of other states and other countries are talking about building similar facilities, making it paramount that Michigan move quickly to establish its world-class testing facility as soon as possible.

The state in the midst of negotiating a sale of the 332-acre industrial site for an undisclosed price. In May, the federal Economic Development Administration awarded a $247,000 grant for the creation of a research center at the former Willow Run plant.

"This is something that has been talked about for a long time," Steve Arwood, CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said in an interview Wednesday. Terms of the negotiations are confidential, he said. Arwood said there is not a timeline for when a sale may be completed.

As a number of new tech companies have explored self-driving vehicles out West, Michigan has been scrambling to maintain its dominance as the center of the global auto industry. As part of that effort, M-City, a 32-acre testing facility in Ann Arbor run in conjunction with the University of Michigan, opened last year.

But supporters of the Willow Run development project said that it could offer automakers, suppliers, academics and government regulators a bigger canvas to test vehicles at higher speeds under highway-like conditions beyond what is possible at M-City. The site would also have an advantage because of the region's four-season weather compared with other potential sites in warmer climates, officials said.

Built by Henry Ford in 1941, the old plant made B-24 bombers during World War II and was later sold to General Motors in the 1950s. It has been empty since GM closed it in December 2010.

The woman who inspired the WWII image of “Rosie the Riveter” worked at the plant.

The plant employed 42,000 people at the height of the war and some 14,000 during its heyday as an automotive factory in the 1970s. Only 300 workers were employed there when it closed.

The 5-million-square-foot factory was later razed and Detroit-based Walbridge Development had said it had plans to develop the site into an advanced vehicle research center. A message left for Walbridge was not immediately returned Wednesday.

A representative for Revitalizing Automotive Communities Environmental Response (RACER) trust, which controls property left behind in GM’s 2009 bankruptcy, said negotiations over the sale are ongoing. But Bruce Rasher, RACER redevelopment manager, declined to provide details about the process or a possible timeline for its completion, .

Officials said it’s too early to say how many jobs the project could create.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who represents the township in Congress, said in a statement Tuesday that the redevelopment remains atop the list of her priorities.

“We want to make sure that we’re developing the technology of the future here in Michigan, and connected and automated vehicles have the potential to revolutionize transportation over the next decade,” Dingell said in a news release.

 

The information above is for general awareness only and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Economic Adjustment or the Department of Defense as a whole.