MADELEINE BRAND, host:
General Motors and Chrysler have survived, but they're a lot smaller now. Nearly two dozen auto plants have closed, and that's put many cities in a quandary: how to recycle the buildings and the land around them. They could look to Anderson, Indiana, as an example.
As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, it was once home to about 20 General Motors plants.
CHERYL CORLEY: One of the first cities that may seek a little help from Anderson, Indiana, is Fenton, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis. That's where workers built the Dodge Ram pickup truck until Chrysler shut the plant down last week.
Jeff Esmyer(ph) was one of the last workers on the assembly line.
Mr. JEFF ESMYER: Got no job. Fourteen years and no job. I don't know what I'm going to do now.
CORLEY: Chrysler had already shut down its minivan plant in Fenton late last year. Mayor Dennis Hancock says the city had worked to diversify its economy in anticipation of possible closures. Even so, says Hancock, losing the plants is still a psychological blow.
Mayor DENNIS HANCOCK (Fenton, Missouri): When I drive by those plants today, it's almost eerie to see the empty parking lots that either used to be full of vehicles that belonged either to the employees or that were produced there. Now, it's just an empty sea of asphalt.
CORLEY: In all, 21 Chrysler and GM plants are to close permanently or be idled over the next few years. It can mean a substantial loss of tax revenue in addition to thousands of jobs. What cities get in return, initially, is a massive, vacant auto plant.
Mayor KRIS OCKOMON (Anderson, Indiana): It was a huge hit for us.
CORLEY: That's Kris Ockomon, the mayor of Anderson, Indiana, which is located near Indianapolis. Anderson used to be the land of autoworkers and General Motors was king, with 25,000-plus employees on the GM payroll. Times were good, but the auto industry heyday started to fade as early as the late 1970s for Anderson. Eventually, thousands would lose their jobs, and the mayor now says there's not a single active GM plant here.
Mayor OCKOMON: And we've managed to survive it. We've managed to keep that positive outlook and keep that positive energy of returning maybe different types of industry back to our community to keep us afloat.
CORLEY: Part of Anderson's survival came from getting rid of a number of its old GM plants. Linda Dawson, the city's director of economic development, says more than a dozen factories were torn down, and the land was cleaned up for new development.
Ms. LINDA DAWSON (Director, Economic Development, Anderson, Indiana): Community struggles with that concept because it also reduces the tax base, but most of these plants that were built in the '40s and '50s do not meet modern standards, and there's no value in them. There's no market to them.
CORLEY: Several of Anderson's former GM plants were sold and are now occupied by other companies. During a driving tour, Tammy Bowman, the city spokeswoman, points to one of the buildings. It's about 900,000 square feet and used by several tenant companies.
Ms. TAMMY BOWMAN (Spokeswoman, Anderson, Indiana): They do it with shared dock space. I believe they share a fork truck, and it's just a new way of looking at an old building.
CORLEY: Using the proceeds from the sale of another GM property along with state and federal funds, Anderson created its Flagship Enterprise Center to help start-up businesses. The director, DeWayne Landwehr, says there's been a spinoff of more than 50 companies, including the Bright Automotive Group.
Mr. DEWAYNE LANDWEHR (Director, Flagship Enterprise Center): The company itself is developing a delivery van that gets 100 miles a gallon.
CORLEY: Which fits right in the city's efforts to attract green businesses. Production on the hybrid van is scheduled to begin in 2012. Landwehr says it's an exciting prospect, but the center's focus is not the automotive industry.
Mr. LANDWEHR: These businesses that we are bringing in that are two, three, four employees, 10 employees, those are the kinds we really want, because if one goes out, you know, it's not a devastating event for the community.
CORLEY: Anderson's largest employer now is the city's hospitals. Two years ago, food processor Nestle built a massive plant here. Still, signs of the auto industry devastation linger.
Two vacant GM plants remain part of the city's landscape. Gary McKinney, who oversees the clean-up of Anderson's industrial sites, says Plant 16, an older facility, hasn't been used for years.
Mr. GARY McKINNEY: And with a little investment, it would be a great building for someone. It just would need to be the right company.
CORLEY: Then there's Plant 20, which Anderson officials call a jewel. It's newer, with high ceilings and vast floor space. At least three companies are interested in retrofitting the plant, and Anderson is in serious negotiations with one. Variety Global Business Group, a Chinese firm, wants to manufacture an environmentally friendly alternative to styrofoam. James Dixon is a minister who encouraged the firm to visit his hometown.
Mr. JAMES DIXON (Founder, Providence Christian Church): And even if a company can't use the 600,000-square-foot facilities or the 2-million-square-foot facilities that GM left as skeletons across America, what we can do is section off parts of it.
CORLEY: Anderson, Indiana, may still have more to do to recover from years of automotive dependency, but business and government leaders say they've created a good blueprint for communities faced with recycling old auto plants and huge tracts of vacant industrial land.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News.
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