It's been three years now since American taxpayers forked over billions of dollars to put General Motors through bankruptcy. The new version of GM is back on its feet, making money again, even if its shareholders would like to see their stock do better.
But vestiges of the automaker still permeate the American landscape, from Massachusetts to a small town in Indiana and all over its home state of Michigan.
Old GM exists as a collection of the bankrupt company's mostly unwanted properties, including a church and a golf course, being sold off at cut-rate prices with the proceeds going not to the taxpayers but instead to a private trust.
Call them the GM Orphans: everything from homes to a rectory to full-sized assembly plants and landfills. These are the properties that GM once owned, and which are now for sale through the Racer Trust. It was set up after the GM bankruptcy to take title to 89 properties in 14 states, and it's been extraordinarily up front about its efforts to find buyers for this motley portfolio.
Today, at GM's vacant Willow Run plant near Ypsilanti, Mich., the trust is holding an open house and seminars for federal, state and local officials, as well as developers who might be interested in the properties. It will showcase some properties and give tips for renovating them — something like those weekly pet adoption spots you see on TV news.
But, like any trustworthy adoption agency, Racer can't just hand out these former GM sites to anyone who shows up. Buyers have to follow six criteria that were set down in an agreement reached between the Departments of Treasury and Justice, the EPA, the attorneys general in the 14 states, and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe in New York State, which owned land that was polluted by a GM plant.
Essentially, the buyer has to agree to help the community where the property is located, by finding investors, creating jobs, paying taxes and other steps. "It makes it a much more challenging assignment than a typical receiver," says Bruce Rasher, the trust's redevelopment manager. (You can read Rasher's tweets @BRasher_RACER from the open house #RacerTrust.)
For example, there is 5 million square feet of industrial space at Willow Run that any liquidator could dispense with in short order. "If the trust were to sell to a demolition/scrap recovery firm, we could sell it very quickly and for a lot more money than if the trust were to abide by the wishes of the community and put tenants and jobs in the building," he says.
That's probably why the non-profit trust has only taken in $19.2 million (million with an m) on the few properties it's been able to sell. They aren't exactly going for nothing: five of the properties have sold for more than $2 million apiece.
But when you think that it costs roughly $1.2 billion these days to build a single assembly plant, you can understand these are thrift shop values. By the way, the proceeds of any sales go to pay post-Bankruptcy trust's administrative costs, which include keeping the lights on, parking lots clear and the lawns mowed. The taxpayers aren't getting any of the money from this Old GM yard sale.
The GM Orphans include what you might expect and some things that you don't. For one thing, some of the property is still around decades after GM shut a place down, like the landfill in Framingham, Mass., where GM once built cars, and the Buick City site in Flint, Mich., home to a plant once portrayed as a model of labor-management cooperation.
There are office complexes in Pontiac, Mich., and a nine-hole golf course in New Jersey. There is even a church rectory in Bedford, Ind., where Racer also is selling some houses and vacant lots.
How did it end up with those, you might ask? Rasher explains that a GM plant nearby leeched pollution into the ground. Because of the area's geography, the contaminants spread out like fingers, popping up miles away in Bedford, beneath homes, the rectory and a church.
The church has been sold, and Rasher is actually optimistic about the chances for other GM Orphans to be adopted, due to a pick up in the economy and the trust's aggressive marketing. "My phone is ringing off the hook and my email box is filling with contacts and prospects," Rasher says.
But he admits some will never find owners. For example, landfills have "very limited use," Rasher says. "Yes, there are some properties that will never sell, but we're not precluded from some creative reuses. Each one is a different challenge or puzzle."