Opening of new Lear plant fuels Flint's rebirth
When Lear Corp. held a job fair in January to hire for its new plant in Flint, it was looking to fill 200 positions. More than 2,500 people showed up.
"The pool of talent is there, and it is rich," said Jason Scott, global vice president of Lear's GM seating business. "But that really took us."
The Southfield-based automotive seating and electrical-distribution system company will celebrate Saturday the grand opening of its newly constructed $29-million, 156,000-square-foot Flint plant, which began limited production in July. Located at 902 E. Hamilton, it will grow to more than 600 employees by next spring, including 435 new hires, as it produces seats for General Motors Co.'s assembly plants in Flint and Orion.
For the beleaguered city most recently buffeted by the water crisis, Lear's investment represents more than a building. It is symbolic of a brighter future, built on the site of the former Buick City Administration Building closed two decades ago. For the city that rose and declined on the fortunes of the car industry, the new Lear factory is the first auto supply plant built in Flint in 30 years.
"It means hope," says Mayor Karen Weaver. "For a company to come and spend that much in Flint, we have to be going in the right direction. There really is a rebirth of the city that is happening."
Flint's resurgence began in the downtown, Weaver said, with restaurants and small businesses opening over the past few years. A Kellogg Foundation grant helped the city create an economic development department in the past six months, something Flint had lacked for more than a decade. According to real estate database Zillow, home prices are up more than 39 percent over the past year.
GM, which traces its roots to Flint, but closed its Buick City assembly plants in 1999, also is investing in the area again. Next year, GM plans to open in adjoining Burton a new 1.1-million-square-foot, $65 million automotive parts processing center, the company’s largest single investment in a warehousing and logistics facility in the United States in nearly 40 years.
The automaker also put $3 million into renovating and preserving the Durant-Dort Carriage Co. "Factory One" building with office, conference and event space that opened in May 2017. GM never built a car there, but many consider it the birthplace of the company.
"It was an alignment of the right people at the right time with the right intentions," Kevin Kirbitz, operations manager for Factory One and a GM engineer, said of that project. "We knew it was important to the Flint community. Any time there is an investment from GM or a large manufacturing company, it bolsters the surrounding economy."
Lear's plant also is somewhat of a homecoming. Ray Scott, who took over as CEO in March, grew up in Flint. The company chose the city over other sites in the United States and Mexico. Global Vice President Jason Scott said its proximity to GM's plants was helpful. But he said the company saw another type of opportunity in Flint.
"We felt like we could be a part of the solution," Scott said, "not that we can fix the problem, but be a solution and a small solution."
Lear had some of its employees help with charities in the community prior to the facility's opening. The plant pays homage to the community with an old photo of the Buick City Assembly Plant in the lobby, and a graffiti mural of important Flint sites, including a park Lear renovated with new landscaping, a picnic area, a playscape, basketball courts and asphalt walking paths.
The Flint plant will operate under Lear's new management style. Instead of salaried supervisors overlooking assembly line operations, members on the line will lead the teams. Jason Scott said that helps empower employees and increases accountability.
"With all the passion in Flint," he said, "we wanted to show them that we care and that they are a part of something and make sure it’s evident in everything we do."
It's the jobs, Mayor Weaver said, that really matter for the community. Higher wages were one of the reasons the city of Flint has chosen to build new mixed-income housing units at Saginaw and Williams streets, less than a mile from Lear's plant. The Department of Housing and Urban Development granted $30 million to the Flint Housing Commission in July to build the units and demolish the distressed Atherton East Townhomes on Chamber Street between Arthur Street and Stonegate Drive.
Tim Herman, Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce CEO, said Lear is tapping into Flint's skilled workforce. Additionally, up and coming talent at Kettering University, Flint's Mott Community College and the University of Michigan-Flint is widely available. Michigan State University recently expanded its medical school operations in the downtown.
"It's going to continue a rich automotive legacy that's been there for decades," Herman said of Lear's investment. "And it shows that it will be a part of the future."
Jason Scott said Lear is eager to be a part of that future.
"To me right now, our story and our narrative is that it is possible to go back into the city of Flint to make it successful," he said. "But our story isn’t written yet. It’s what we do today, tomorrow, next year. We’re going to do everything possible to be successful."