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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

NPR's business news starts with new life for an old car factory.

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WERTHEIMER: An abandoned General Motors plant has a new lease on life. GM walked away from the former Fisher Body 1 plant in Flint, Michigan after it filed for bankruptcy. The factory has a rich history. It was one of the places where sit-down strikes in the 1930s led to recognition of the United Auto Workers Union.

Now a part of the factory is occupied again, but workers there are not making cars. They're distributing high-priced prescription drugs. From the Midwest reporting project Changing Gears, Kate Davidson reports.

KATE DAVIDSON, BYLINE: There's one group of experts who can always tell you the history and significance of an old factory. They're the guys at the bars across the street.

DAN WRIGHT: I was a line spot welder, Fisher Body 1, South Unit, Department 42.

DAVIDSON: Dan Wright is still a regular at the Caboose Lounge. He worked at Fisher Body briefly in the '70s. Back then...

WRIGHT: The bars were always full and restaurants were always full and stores were always full. And all these stores, bars and restaurants you go to now, there's nobody there. And it's sad that Flint died the way it did.

DAVIDSON: Now Michigan's governor has declared a financial emergency in Flint, the once-prosperous birthplace of GM. And it was at Fisher Body in late 1936 that something unusual happened.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Or rather, nothing happened. Nothing moved. The workers had sat down. They would not work.

PHIL HAGERMAN: We're actually standing in the area very close right now where the 1937 sit-down strike was that formed the UAW. It was in this building.

DAVIDSON: Phil Hagerman is president and CEO of Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy, which moved in this year. Diplomat specializes in drugs that target serious illnesses like cancer, MS and HIV/AIDS. Many produce side effects, so nurses here call patients to make sure they stick to their treatment plans. In the distribution center, bins of medications are winding along a conveyor belt, ready to be shipped.

HAGERMAN: Specialty pharmacy is the fastest growing component in the pharmacy industry. Traditional pharmacy is growing at 2 to 5 percent a year. Specialty pharmacy is growing at 15 to 25 percent a year.

DAVIDSON: Diplomat hired more than 200 people this year. Phil Hagerman says the company is on track to top a billion dollars in sales next year.

HAGERMAN: We're distributing as many as 2,000 or more prescriptions a day around the country, shipping to every state, every day from this building.

DAVIDSON: This building highlights the transformation of the industrial Midwest. GM shuttered its sprawling plant in the '80s, and most of it was demolished. But the steel and concrete - the main structure of this building - were retrofitted into an engineering and design center for GM. Diplomat later bought half the space, and it's still enormous, 550,000 square feet. That's more than 1,000 square feet per employee.

HAGERMAN: How often do normal business rules allow a company to have a 10-year growth footprint? It just doesn't happen, because the cost of the building is so great. But because we acquired this from an auction process at a very, very low cost, we have a building that we know we can grow into for about 10 years.

DAVIDSON: So that's one advantage of acquiring property discarded by industrial giants. Advantage number two: 1,700 cubicles left behind. Advantage number three: random industrial signs that read: Caution - pedestrian traffic. Sound horn. And advantage four: the government loves you, especially if you're a high-tech or medical company. In fact, Diplomat won't pay property taxes here for almost 15 years, and it got a $62 million tax break from the state. In return, CEO Phil Hagerman says he'll hire 4,000 people in the next two decades.

Still, thousands of people used to stream through the Caboose Lounge every week. Waitress Janet Anderson says the new workers at Diplomat don't come in yet, but she's hopeful.

JANET ANDERSON: I have a good breakfast, real good breakfast, and you can ask anybody here.

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DAVIDSON: And the reality is, hope itself is a welcome sign of change in Flint. For NPR News, I'm Kate Davidson.

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