The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

As Ford plant closes, Mac students look forward

The oldest Ford assembly plant in the country, which for over 80 years provided thousands of jobs to Saint Paul and shaped the Highland Park neighborhood, will close its doors for good on Dec. 19, a few days after the last pickup rolls off the line. Though the loss of a long-standing community cornerstone is hard to contemplate, it will leave behind 122 acres of prime riverfront real estate and infrastructure like heavy rail and hydroelectric power, which many – including Macalester students – see as a great opportunity.

Saint Paul mayor Chris Coleman captured the feeling of many in the region in an email. “Ford has been an important part of Saint Paul’s historical fabric,” Mayor Coleman said. “While we are sad to see their doors close, we are optimistic about the opportunity to use this land to create new businesses and jobs.”

The plant is a 20-minute ride south from Macalester on the 84 bus, along the eponymous Ford Parkway. From most vantage points, it looks like any successful industrial site. Smokestacks and ventilation pipes reveal the factory’s activity, and a large lit Ford logo welcomes travelers on the Intercity Bridge into Saint Paul. Lock and Dam No. 1, which began construction in 1917 to power the plant, sits just downstream.

Highland Park is unlike the typical image of a major industrial neighborhood. Rather than being relegated to the outskirts, the plant is nestled into the neighborhood’s thriving commercial district, which runs along the Parkway and Cleveland Avenue and has the trappings, from Chipotle to Caribou, that one would expect in a more suburban setting.

If you get up close, you can see the rows of white Ford Ranger compact pickup trucks, the plant’s current product. The plant has made over 7 million units of 45 different models – including the Model T and armored cars in World War Two – since it opened for business in 1925.

Lately, the lot hasn’t been as filled as it once was. In 2007, after years of rumors amid decreased demand for pickup trucks like the Ranger, Ford officially announced that it would close the plant. Negotiations with United Auto Workers (UAW) and other stakeholders managed to push the closing back for years, but on Oct. 18 Ford finalized the date. Between 2007 and now, the plant has reduced capacity from almost 2,000 jobs to around 800 that still remain—most of them, as one might expect, temporary positions.

“A fitting legacy”

When the closing was first announced in 2007, the Saint Paul Planning Commission appointed a Task Force of community members and city officials to begin the long process of research and planning for the site’s future. Over the past four years, the city has produced reports on various development issues, such as green manufacturing, open space, and sustainability. All reports can be found online on the task force web page.

One of the major reports produced by the task force outlines five model redevelopment scenarios for the site. The Phase 1 Planning report considered economic viability, community space, land use, sustainability and transport access and set out to eventually create “a fitting legacy for both the Ford Company and the City of Saint Paul.” The five scenarios were several hypothetical ways to meet these goals. They range from a heavy manufacturing green industrial park scenario to a high-density residential space centered around new transit infrastructures, such as new bus lines and bike paths.

These plans were created for the purpose of guiding future development, and are not actual plans for the site. Mayor Coleman summarized the vision for the site held by many Saint Paul residents. “We’d like to see it redevelop in a manner that complements the neighborhood, provides strong tax base for the city, adds a mix of uses including jobs, housing, commerce and open space and respects the beauty of the Mississippi River corridor,” he said.

These five scenarios are not the only plans currently in the works for the site. Soon after the announcement, in Spring 2007, former UAW Local 879 organizer Lynn Hinkle (who worked at the plant for 30 years) formed a coalition with labor organizers, NGOs, community members, and students called Alliance to Re-Industrialize for a Sustainable Economy (ARISE). Hinkle previously led a group through the UAW that negotiated with Ford to prevent the plant’s immediate closing.

The group is now associated with Grand Aspirations, a group founded by a Macalester graduate in 2008 that focuses on environmentally friendly economic development. ARISE has begun to propose a sixth scenario, which according to their mission statement, “incorporates green manufacturing, mixed-used sustainable community design, multi-modal transit and clean energy production.” Since the organization’s inception, Macalester students have played a major role in all stages of the planning process, which will soon reach a new, more concrete stage with the closing of the plant.

A new vision

Willy Raedy ’13 is the research coordinator for ARISE. He became involved two years ago through Grand Aspiration’s Summer of Solutions program. According to him, the three keys to the ARISE vision are that it “equalizes [the housing situation], de-carbonizes and re-industrializes.”

The current site plan has five elements: industrial use for green manufacturing, mixed income and density housing, transit development (including a new light rail spur connecting to the current and upcoming lines) and new urbanist development. Raedy considers local manufacturing to be vital in today’s economy. He points to rising energy and transport costs as benefits of local production, and also sees the kinds of jobs produced as critical to a functioning society.

“We have to be able to make green products here if we want be sustainable; we can’t ship everything from China,” Raedy said. “Also, manufacturing jobs are some of the most accessible and living wage jobs that we can use to create equal opportunity for a lot of people.”

Stephen Peyton ’13 leads the organizational management subcommittee, which is responsible for internal planning, as well as recruiting for ARISE. He also became involved after summer of solutions, last summer.

Peyton sees ARISE’s multi-faceted vision as its strength. “Every single element interacts with other elements to benefit each other,” Peyton said. “The economic aspect is not only about jobs, it’s about carbon credits being saved, it’s about people being able to live where they’re employed.”

Currently, ARISE has been consulting the Perkins and Will architecture firm and is pursuing a potential developer for when the site goes up for sale. Members of ARISE have also been in preliminary and mostly informal communication with city officials such as the planning council and Mayor Coleman.

Merritt Clapp-Smith, a Senior Urban Planner for Saint Paul, has had discussions and meetings with representatives with ARISE over the course of the process. “[Their] principles are similar to many of the priorities shared by the community and the City,” she said in an email. “However, much like the City’s five redevelopment scenarios … ARISE’s work is mostly conceptual and needs further evaluation, refinement and real prospects to test its potential and limitations.”

‘Who says it has to be ugly?’

The plan is not without its challenges. Manufacturing in this economy is a notoriously difficult sell—as reported in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, the state of Minnesota offered $450 million in tax breaks over 12 years for continued vehicle production at the plant, to no avail.

In the face of these conditions, Raedy recognized the difficulty, but was optimistic and confident in the potential of green manufacturing of products such as wind turbines and light rail cars on the site. “Both cities and both mayors have been pretty committed to the idea of green manufacturing,” Raedy said, citing a 2008 “Green Cities, Green Jobs” reported commissioned by a Mayoral initiative of both the Twin Cities.

Raedy called green, sustainable industry “industry of the future.” “Not only are we supporting the environment, but we’re als o creating jobs in sectors that are growing, so they’re not going to leave in ten years,” he said. “They’re going to be there for the community for the long term.”

Beyond economic realities, Peyton says that a prime concern for ARISE is building connections and getting feedback “not just from community members, but also from experts.”

Of course, politics also play a role. “One of the things we’ve constantly come back to is how to approach the city, how do approach Ford, and when do we approach them, because timing is critical,” Peyton said.

Alice Madden ’13 is the head of the Public Relations subcommittee, and shared first hand experience in building connections in the community. Over the summer, she and others went around knocking on doors in Highland Park. Madden sees this kind of community participation as vital for the project. “Just for example, big multilateral development projects that happen in developing countries very infrequently consult the people who are living there,” Madden said. “And then it ends up being a complete disaster.”

“Who says an industrial site has to be ugly, or has to be polluting?” she added.

The road ahead

ARISE and other plans for the Ford site are at this point far from any consideration of implementation. Environmental impact reports and remediation, especially critical and potentially significant on a site built well before current EPA regulations, are not expected to begin before 2013, and must be completed before major development can take place.

The city is currently monitoring Ford’s ongoing environmental assessment, and will continue to track similar reports by future landowners. The long process reflects both the reality of large development projects and the shift the closing of the plant represents for many in this city.

The closing of the Ford site after 80 years was called “the end of the industrial era in this area” by University of Minnesota historian Hy Berman. The Star Tribune quoted longtime worker Terry Dinderman last week expressing similar sentiments about the loss of not just jobs, but a symbol. “It’s a way of life that will no longer be here,” Dinderman said.

But there remains a lot of hope for the future of the site. “Achieving [a fitting redevelopment for the site] will take a lot of work and coordination from the landowner, the city, and the community,” Mayor Coleman said. “We are confident we can accomplish this.”

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