November 15, 2010 at 1:00 am

Packard plant to lose last tenant

Auto supplier departs as city pushes to raze historic site

At the end of the year, Chemical Processing, the last remaining tenant inside the old Packard plant, is moving to Madison Heights after 52 years in Detroit. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Detroit— At its height, the fabled Packard plant housed more than 40,000 workers.

Now its sole rent-paying tenant, Chemical Processing, is leaving the decrepit facility after 52 years.

The company's owner, Bruce Kafarski, was born the same year his family moved the business into the Albert Kahn-designed plant built by the luxury automaker. His father and grandfathers worked on the line. But by the end of the year, Kafarski is moving his eight-employee metal finishing company to Madison Heights.

Kafarski has watched as the once-grand facility degenerated into a gutted eyesore, but he said the company's health and family obligations are prompting him to merge Chemical Processing with another firm.

"There's a lot of history here," said Kafarski, of Grosse Pointe Farms. "I think about how many thousands of workers worked out of here at one time."

"It's just sort of a sign of what happened to southeastern Michigan and the auto industry."

Built in 1903, the plant was a marvel, one of the most modern of its time, according to the MotorCities National Heritage Area.

The factory churned out cars that outsold Cadillac, Lincoln, Peerless and Pierce-Arrow combined for much of the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, production shifted to motors for planes and boats. But fortunes changed after the war when Packard switched to midprice cars. Sales fell, and it closed the plant in 1956 and merged with Studebaker.

Two years later, Kafarski's father moved the business he started in 1950 into the plant.

Passers-by wouldn't know anyone was inside today. A mulberry bush grows wild near the front door, and the company sign is faded.

Kafarski's crew works in a cavernous 57,000-square-foot shop with large tanks used to put finishing coats on small parts, such as nuts and bolts, that are used in cars. Concrete block walls separate the operation from other parts of the ruined building.

At its height in the 1960s, the company employed 90 and ran three shifts. Kafarski took over in 1989 after his dad died.

Kafarski said he hasn't gotten too sentimental about the move yet.

He and his staff are more excited than sad: They won't have a daily view of the plant's destruction. Kafarski tars the roof himself to plug leaks. Scrappers have cut off the company's phone and electric lines repeatedly in the past few years for copper. He stopped calling police to report intruders several years ago.

Out his back door, graffiti covers the walls near massive piles of broken concrete, rebar, bricks and trash. The roof on one of the six-story buildings next door has collapsed. And the walkway of a bridge over the alley has fallen and the debris blocks the road.

Kafarski remembers feeling a vibration in his office a few years ago at lunch time, opening the back door and seeing a cloud of dust. Two scrappers had brought down the bridge when they cut out the steel beams.

"That was surreal, but then again I wasn't surprised," Kafarski said.

As recently as 10 years ago, more than 100 tenants rented space at the plant, including used auto parts dealers and musicians.

Packard buff Elijah Burns said it's disappointing to see the last tenant "throw in the towel" and hear the city's intention to push forward on possible demolition.

"That company helped bring this country through World War I and World War II," said Burns, a retired Detroit auto repair shop owner.

"Just because a company has went out of business doesn't mean the history should be destroyed."

Kafarski said he values the connection to Packard's history. He has a few framed photos from the plant's heyday, a box of Packard pencils and a recently found congratulatory letter that went with a gold pocket watch Packard gave his grandfather for 25 years of service. In faint print on the stationery is the company slogan: "Ask a man who owns one."

"Maybe it will hit me when we leave," Kafarski said.

But he said working in what could be mistaken for a scene from Berlin after World War II has been depressing.

Kafarski's mother died in 2007 at age 89, never really grasping how bad things had gotten for the auto industry or the old Packard plant, he said.

She had seen ups and downs in the auto industry before and would often tell him: "Things will get better."

"I'd try to tell her things were a lot worse," Kafarski said. "I am glad she didn't have to see how the world has changed."

cmacdonald@detnews.com

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