Ford's Wixom plant site on I-96 being redeveloped

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

The site of the former Ford Wixom Assembly Plant, once a flourishing factory that turned out some of the automaker's most popular models, is getting new life after years of sitting abandoned and unused.

"It's amazing where we've come from to today," Loren Baidas, president of the huge General RV Center, told 300 employees, city officials and guests during a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony at the company's new headquarters.

And a Menards home improvement store is slated to open at the site of the former factory in the fall.

Ford closed the outdated plant, where it produced several models of Lincolns and Fords, in 2007. Plans to redevelop the land as a renewable-energy park fell through four years later, when a battery maker and solar energy company couldn't get federal funding to move to Michigan.

As a result, the 4.7-million-square-foot plant, on prime property at Interstate 96 and Wixom Road in western Oakland County, sat abandoned. And the city of Wixom, which relied heavily on the plant for its tax base and to bring people into town, soldiered on through the recession.

When the Ford plant closed, Wixom was getting between $1.4 million and $1.5 million in tax revenue annually, about 11 percent of the total tax revenue of the city, according to Finance Manager Marilyn Stamper. Overall, the plant was responsible for more than $6 million annually for all tax jurisdictions, including county and school districts.

"We did lose tax dollars when the building went down; we were prepared for that," said Debe Barker, business development liaison for the city of Wixom. "We didn't expect the economy to go down like it did, but we've been very frugal watching our tax dollars. We're positive something good is going to go in there."

Marvin Poota, whose father opened the nearby Wixom Food Market on Wixom Road in 1972, during the plant's heyday, said the surrounding businesses that relied on the plant workers took a hit. They often would go to the market during their lunch breaks.

"We lost some business, obviously, and that was on top of the economy being bad," he said. "Everybody coming in here spending money would spend less because they were making less."

In 2012, demolition of the enormous Ford plant began — a project that took months.

It was rebranded Assembly Park, and now is the site of General RV's corporate headquarters and a huge fleet of RVs, from weekend campers to $100,000 motorhomes. The giant Menards store is nearing completion, to challenge nearby Lowe's and Home Depot. General RV and Menards, however, comprise only a fraction of the property.

"Right now it's just good for the area that the building is gone and it's not vacant," said Poota. "It's looking good."

Stretching out

For the Baidas family, moving General RV to Assembly Park was a natural fit. They were running out of space at their previous location, across the freeway. Now, the company has a new 90,000-square-foot building — triple the space it had in its old operation, with plenty of room for inventory and 40 repair bays.

The dealership opened in January, but held its official ribbon-cutting just recently, to coincide with the annual Michigan camper and RV show at the nearby Suburban Collection Showplace. With summer coming soon, sales are heating up and the extra space is being put to good use, said Baidas.

"It's an honor to be here. We were here in the '90s when the Ford plant was running full speed, three shifts a day," he said.

"The Ford Wixom plant really put Wixom on the map. We understand the heritage and the importance of automotive sales to this area," Baidas said.

The Menards store has been under construction for months, northeast of General RV.

"The new Wixom Menards store is being built in our largest format, similar to our stores in Chesterfield and Livonia plus others throughout Michigan," said company spokesman Jeff Abbott. The store will have a full-service lumberyard with a covered warehouse, a garden center, a pet and wildlife department, appliances and a line of convenience store groceries.

'Ready for anyone'

For now, most of the land at Assembly Park remains undeveloped and for sale by multiple owners.

In 2013, Barrow Development bought 240 acres of the 317-acre site for about $7 million. The Boston developer is offering 140 acres of cleared land for $75,000 an acre — $10.5 million total.

The company is offering an additional 43 acres covered in concrete slabs for no cost. Anyone taking the land likely would need to remove the concrete before anything could be done with it.

Another developer, Wixom-based Schonsheck Inc., is working with an unnamed partner to build on an additional 23-acre parcel zoned for mixed industrial use.

"We're planning to put in the access road and all the utilities, and mass-grade the site so it is ready for anyone coming along," said Craig Zokas, president of Schonsheck.

"We're interested in selling parts of it or entire the parcel," he said.

Varied use part of master plan

Wixom's master plan for the site includes retail space for Menards and General RV in the land closest to I-96 and Wixom Road, and research and development, high-tech and light industrial use for the rest of the property.

Ford operated the Wixom plant between 1957 and 2007, producing numerous vehicles there. At its peak in the 1970s, the plant employed almost 5,500.

The closure came at the same time Ford was slashing jobs and shrinking to deal with a drop in demand during the start of the recession.

Ford is retaining 32 acres of the property considered a landfill area.

Ford spokeswoman Dawn Booker said the automaker has been working with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality "to ensure that the site is a viable location for future commercial development" and is managing the old landfill on the site in accordance with the agency's requirements.

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