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Federal grip on GM plant chokes opportunities

Employees leave the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville, in this June 9, 2005, file photo. The nearly 90-year old building is being held as collateral for the federal bailout loans given to GM earlier this year. AP File Photo by Andy Manis

Employees leave the General Motors assembly plant in Janesville, in this June 9, 2005, file photo. The nearly 90-year old building is being held as collateral for the federal bailout loans given to GM earlier this year. AP File Photo by Andy Manis

Paul Snyder
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There is a roughly 4.8 million-square-foot building on 240 acres in Janesville with relatively new roads and railroad tracks feeding into the property.

It is a prime piece of real estate that’s attractive to developers, but, for now, no one can touch it. The now-closed General Motors Corp. plant is locked up as collateral for the $13.4 billion in federal bailout loans given to GM earlier this year.

“It doesn’t put a damper on our efforts to attract development because we have other space,” said John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville Inc., a nonprofit economic development group. “But the fact is that there’s an amazing resource sitting there, downtown, and we don’t know what will happen with it yet.”

And the longer the property is vacant, the more it will become a problem, Beckord said.

“These buildings become industrial carcasses if they’re left unattended for too long,” he said. “It does become detrimental to the area.”

GM spokesman Dan Flores said several GM buildings are being used as collateral, and the company is still in the early stages of decommissioning the building and determining what to do with it.

Since the plant officially closed earlier this year, there has been some discussion at the state level of finding new manufacturing uses for the site, but Beckord said the federal hold on the building might slow negotiations.

Nevertheless, Janesville and its regional economic development teams must actively market the site, said Eric Schwartz, president of Sara Investment Real Estate LLC, Middleton.

“There’s a fork in the road right now,” he said. “Could you do something else with it in an adaptive reuse fashion? Or, if not that, then what? Can it be a residential development? Mixed-use?”

Schwartz said Sara, which recently invested in several Janesville properties, cannot take over the whole site, but the prospect of parceling it out to several developers is appealing.

“If you can break it up, you’re talking 50,000 square feet downtown,” he said. “That’s incredible. People just need to realize that there has to be a new direction because the automotive thing is over. It’s an absolute blood bath right now.”

But any new direction for the plant must wait for GM’s future to become clearer. Flores said the automaker has a lot of surplus property and would be interested in selling some off after settling finances, remediating sites and resolving long to-do lists.

“Idle facilities generate costs,” he said. “It might be property taxes or it might be heating them in the winter so pipes don’t burst. Fundamentally, if there’s a market out there for the building, we’re interested in exploring it.”

But that does not mean developers or Janesville residents should expect a quick fix, Beckord said.

“I don’t think anyone can tell you how the timeline on this building is going to play out, but for all these people saying, ‘Why don’t ‘they’ do this?’ let me say that it takes time to acquire a property of this size,” he said. “And if it’s collateralized, then there’s a whole network of financial institutions and the federal government that someone’s going to have to go through.”

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