General Motors is considering building another facility in Genesee County. The deal is not finalized and there are few details outside a lonely mlive article. According to this article, the new facility will add “[u]p to 800 jobs” to the city of Burton.
With the above information in mind, I started pondering the situation. After thinking about the article, scribbling in a notebook and reading over some passages in a few books I was drawn to my keyboard. I couldn’t stay away this time. I haven’t written about local issues before, even when I had strong opinions. I would not make this mistake again.
Without knowing all of the details, I could hardly come to a conclusion. I certainly could not come to something remotely close to an informed conclusion. However, I could speculate. Banter of this nature isn’t to be taken as “gospel”. Despite the overall lack of information, there is enough to spark a conversation. And so, I digress and offer my thoughts.
Might This be a Bad Idea?
After reading the original mlive article, a shallow happiness came over me. Broadly speaking, the notion of “adding-jobs-to-an-area” will be taken as an inherently good prospect. Taking into account the low number of high paying jobs in the area and the large number of unemployed folks, it seems as though GM were answering the begging prayers of so many. If this new facility came to Burton, people would be able to feed themselves and their families. They could move out of their crumbling homes and buy newer vehicles that don’t have rust stained fenders.
However, the brief joy I felt started leaking away almost instantly. As I did the calculations, running my finger along an invisible map in the air before me, a negative fog crept out of the news. Before long, the uplifting notions that had bloomed in my chest were rotten and replaced with a familiar cynical tarnish. Could this news be bad or was I just being prejudice against a major corporation?
My default opinion toward large companies is rather negative. I regard the relentless pursuit of money as absurd and heartless. Additionally, I hold a skeptical attitude toward corporations and businesses. However, I believe in offering everyone a fair chance to pitch their case. Everyone deserves to have their argument put forth on the public debate table, including companies like General Motors.
General Motors’ Argument
If the deal goes through, and General Motors decides to erect a new facility, they will add hundreds of jobs to the area. This is wonderful, as I mentioned. The location GM has selected is next to the Flint and Burton city line, so people from both municipalities will easily be able to walk, bike or ride a bus to the plant. Again, this is a clear benefit. These jobs will give some people the chance to liberate themselves from the crime of an impoverished city. Others will be able to break away from government assistance. It seems obvious that it would be good for GM to move into Burton.
Additionally, General Motors will need people to build the facility. In addition to building the structure, GM will need people to install the electrical components of the building, plumbing and computer systems. The parking lot will have to be paved and everything will have to be painted. Some of these contracts could easily be awarded to local companies, depending on how GM decides to push forward.
If the “addition of jobs” is the primary qualification for a “good” business decision, then there would be little doubt about this proposed facility.
The mlive article states this would be a “1.1 million square-foot structure” when complete. In total, this facility would be a “$45 million” investment. Perhaps this investment is a sign the leaders of General Motors have finally changed their minds and are willing to return to the Flint area. In the last few years they made other considerable investments. For example, some new micro plants were added to the main plant in the county: Flint Assembly.
GM may claim this new investment is sizable, however it is barely a drop in the bucket compared to what they could invest. Last year GM made $12.2 billion in profit, according to their website. This was a $3.3 billion increase from the previous year.
Overall, I feel there are reasons to judge General Motors’ actions with a strict skepticism. In the past GM has abandoned their hometown for other countries that provided cheaper labor. This readiness to leave should be a factor in our decision to allow them to build now. GM regularly cut hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of jobs from Flint plants. Some of this occurred during what could arguably be called the “heyday” of the American automotive industry. Again, this readiness to slash away at employee ranks should be considered.
During the economic turmoil of the 1970’s GM laid off thousands of workers. Historian Andrew Highsmith wrote that between 1973 and 1987 GM dismissed 26,000 workers. The company recruited people and let them go in large numbers, until 1999 when GM closed their biggest and oldest plant in the United States: Buick City. After they shut this factory down the already troubled economic situation in Flint imploded. Unemployment rates shot up. Highsmith wrote that in the first decade of the new millennium there were only 15,000 people employed by the automotive industry in Genesee county. This number dwindled to roughly 8,000 in the aftermath of the 2009 crash.
Lastly, and much more specific to this situation, the proposed location for General Motors’ latest “state-of-the-art facility” is across the street from a nature preserve. For-Mar Nature Preserve is a local oasis for animals and plants. Inside the hard and unforgiving concrete world of a crumbling city, this 383-acre county park serves as an educational and recreational beacon. Depending on the type of facility GM has constructed and the type of work done there, all of this natural beauty could be in jeopardy.
When General Motors elected to close some of their Genesee county plants they left behind impressive twisted skeletons. These monsters become tattered as they suffered an unending assault from harsh winters and neglect. The warped siding of these behemoths grew patches of random colors and shapes as graffiti artists practiced their craft. Eventually the plants were torn down section by section. Piles of metal were shipped away as GM endeavored to scrub the factories from local memory. However, the parking lots and foundations of the plants remain. These massive concrete slabs are stretched between streets that are known for once harboring grand factories that produced world class vehicles and tanks. However now these same streets are locally famous for producing crime, drugs and prostitution.
I think the citizens and officials of Burton should approach this proposal with a breed of optimism that is thickly coated with skepticism. I believe General Motors’ past performance in this area alone justifies such an attitude. When talking about this proposed idea to a friend, I summed up my opinion as this: GM seems flighty. The proposed location’s proximity to a nature preserve only bolsters the argument against allowing GM to build their newest facility.
I might be wrong. General Motors might actually have a plan to account for potential environmental catastrophes. They might also have a plan to abandon their foreign factories, come back to their home town and rebuild some plants in Flint and the surrounding areas. However, I don’t know what their plans are, and thus suggest we proceed with caution.
Demolition Means Progress by Andrew Highsmith
You can purchase it here on Amazon