SPARK Nabs Federal Funds for Willow Run Plant Redevelopment Plan

Ann Arbor SPARK announced late last month that it has been awarded a 2014 Regional Innovation Strategies Program Science and Research Park Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. The $247,170 grant will support SPARK’s ongoing efforts to create a connected vehicle development center at the former Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti Township, MI.

The 5 million-square-foot former automotive and munitions factory—it’s where Henry Ford perfected his system of producing a new World War II bomber every minute—has been in SPARK’s crosshairs at least since 2013. The Willow Run plant, which most recently produced powertrains for GM, was one of a group of manufacturing plants the automotive giant unloaded during its bankruptcy restructuring a few years ago.

Willow Run is now controlled by RACER Trust, and SPARK’s CEO, Paul Krutko, says the trust supports the plan to turn the plant into a connected vehicle accelerator where early-stage mobility companies could incubate and established companies associated with the connected car vertical could lease space.

“The redevelopment of the site is a long-term project,” Krutko said, explaining why the acquisition process has moved so slowly. “Things will happen over the course of years.”

Back in 2013, Krutko told Xconomy that Walbridge, a Detroit-based construction and design firm, was taking the lead in getting the project off the ground. Walbridge struck a deal with RACER Trust that year to begin demolition after efforts to sell the property as is garnered little interest. Krutko said Walbridge is still involved in the project, but RACER Trust wanted to hold off on negotiations until after Walbridge completed demolition of the property.

“Over the last year, we’ve seen a remarkable transformation,” Krutko said. “The site is cleared, cleaned of debris, and ready for development. RACER Trust is now negotiating with Walbridge and significant work has been done to realize our vision.”

Ypsilanti Township has government oversight of the project, and it has signaled it’s “fine with it,” Krutko said. SPARK and Walbridge are moving forward with due diligence and site feasibility work, he added.

“We’ve had meetings with OEMS and Tier 1 suppliers to get a sense of what they’d need at the site,” he said. “We’ve also developed a business plan, which we’ve shared with [state Auto Czar] Kevin Kerrigan, so his team is up-to-date and supportive.”

Krutko said that the grant was one of 12 awarded by the Department of Commerce across the country, and that its aim is to create a research park component of the property to nurture early-stage mobility companies. In addition, SPARK wants to work with Michigan’s Department of Transportation to utilize adjacent roadways to link the Willow Run project to a massive connected car research project, the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center, currently underway in Ann Arbor. SPARK is also talking with Washtenaw Community College about developing a curriculum around the skills needed to propel the intelligent transportation sector forward.

Krutko said Business Leaders for Michigan, a statewide professional organization composed of C-level executives from Michigan’s largest companies, has already gone on record saying that SPARK’s vision for the Willow Run plant is a good step toward making the Great Lakes State a national leader in mobility and connected cars.

“As a region, we need to create a platform for the auto industry to evolve,” he said. “If we don’t do it here, it will happen somewhere else. It’s a very transitional time in the transportation industry in general, and Southeast Michigan, in particular, needs to be aggressive in participating in new technology that will shape the future of the auto industry.”

When asked how many jobs the project might create, Krutko didn’t have a specific number. “I’m not hedging,” he explained. “It’s hard for us to estimate what impact a facility like this would have in terms of job creation.”

Despite the state legislature’s move to cut the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s funding by 11 percent yesterday, Krutko is hoping to have financial support from state government “somewhere down the road.” SPARK has also briefed several branches of the federal government on the Willow Run redevelopment plans. “They’re starting to realize how many departments and agencies will potentially be touching mobility,” he said.

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