Officials hope former truck factory makes Michigan a movie star

Neglected trees lie in an abandoned General Motors office; another section of the property will soon see new life as a movie studio. Photo: Courtney Morra

Editors note: This is part of a series of stories on innovative ways of recycling abandoned urban land in the Great Lakes region.

By Courtney Morra

When the General Motors Pontiac Assembly Center opened in 1972 to build medium-duty trucks, there was no way to predict the diverse subsequent uses of the 130-acre site. The site’s function has changed in a number of ways, but perhaps the most exciting transformation is the current construction of the new Raleigh Michigan Studios in Pontiac.

Ground broke last July on what was first named Motown Motion Pictures. Linden Nelson, the chief executive officer of the project, changed the name last year to align the studio more closely with film and with Raleigh’s international reputation. The partners are John Ratolka Jr., the chief executive officer of Walbridge Aldinger; A. Alfred Taubman’s Taubman Group and William Morris Endeavors’ Ari Emanuel. They have said that Michigan’s 42 percent tax break for film production is “the best in the country right now.”

Raleigh, the country’s longest-running film studio, is expected to create 5,139 new jobs, including 3,600 directly, according to Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s office. It is one of three studio projects that Granholm officials said are expected to create nearly 6,000 jobs. Granholm proposed film incentive programs in Michigan in 2008 with bi-partisan support.

The studio will be equipped for 3D animation and special effects, and serve as a learning center for Michigan film students. Students are expected from the nearby Detroit College for Creative Studies and Oakland Community College.

The studio is being built by a Detroit branch of the U.S. construction company Walbridge on part of what used to be General Motors’ Centerpoint business campus. The project includes two new buildings with a combined square footage of 206,000. Additionally, the finished studio will include the renovated 360,000-square foot office building that is already there.

According to Mark Corey, a Walbridge project manager, the first building will be completed on April 23 and the second will be completed sometime in the spring.

Indirect jobs have already been created. Curtis DeDobbeleer works with New Image Building Services, cleaning the facilities where both the Walbridge construction project managers and Raleigh Studios executives have offices in Pontiac.

“We just started, but there’s about 10 of us so far,” DeDobbeleer said. “We’ve been really busy.”

Curtis DeDobbeleer works for New Image building services. He and about then others so far have been contracted to clean the interior of the renovated building. Photo: Courtney Morra

About 135 Walbridge tradesmen are working per day, Corey said. “To have new construction, and a new industry, in this city that has been hit so hard by the auto company decline is very special.”

The site was vacant after heavy- and medium-duty truck production stopped in 1989. Then in 1993 GM announced that it would sell the property to Etkin Equity for development as a business campus and then lease it back as the new Truck Product Center.

The rehabilitation, carried out by Barton Malow construction, created thousands of jobs and transformed a section of the lifeless manufacturing center into a workplace for GM engineers. It was home to the second largest business office in Oakland County.

But the new facility was only used for a short period before becoming vacant yet again.

Mark Ellis was a GM executive of vehicle safety who worked in the Centerpoint building with about 4,000 other employees when it opened in 1996 until the division was relocated nearly eight years later.

“It was great working there,” said Ellis, now retired. “It was the first time all of the engineering people were together like that.”

The expansive grounds were well kept, he said. A tree was planted for every employee and the exterior color-coded to make it easier to navigate the large space.

Today, the west side of what was once a busy GM assembly center is just an abandoned lot with remnants of industry. The engineering center where Ellis once worked lies between this blighted space and the studio construction on the east site. Architects and environmentalists once recognized this building for the sustainable way Barton Malow built it.

“We felt such pride and ownership over the building, with less extraneous corporate stuff going on,” Ellis said. “It was hard to move out after eight years.”

The old GM Truck Product Center has grown over. Photo: Courtney Morra

The 4,000 or so trees remain. Much of the grounds are grown over with shrubs and grass; walk lamps have rusted to the point of collapse. But the building itself is still eerily perfect and clean. Through the revolving glass door you can see the grandeur that once brought so much pride, but the hall is also littered with dead indoor trees.

Such abandoned urban brownfields could be eligible for state development incentives.
The incentives serve to “level the playing field,” said Jeff Hukill, a brownfield grant and loan coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment. This way developing on a brownfield is equal to the cost of building on a greenfield.

Investors could get reimbursed under the $335 million in bond sales voters approved for brownfield development in 1998. But most of that is gone and there isn’t any legislation for pending for more. Community officials are concerned.

“Since there isn’t a fund that is contributed to every year by the state, when it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Joe Martin of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. And now that it is almost gone, state officials have to be choosier. Cleanups have slowed. Public health concerns make cleanups involving water a priority.

“If the project has to do with water it’s more likely to get support than a brownfield project,” Martin said.

But what’s driving the studio project has nothing to do with water or brownfield development bonds. The impetus comes from state tax breaks for film projects.

The new studio’s financing includes $11.1 million in Michigan Film Infrastructure tax credits, according to a report from Crain’s Detroit Business.

“The infrastructure credit was put in place to encourage the building of film infrastructure projects, including studios, sound stages and post houses,” said Michelle Begnoche, a communications representative from the Michigan Film Office. “Approved applicants receive a 25 percent tax credit against their Michigan business tax.”

Another state incentive program offers a tax break of up to 42 percent for film productions projects. That break is the reason Emanuel, who founded the William Morris Endeavor Talent Agency, got on board with the project

Film incentives are designed to motivate producers to hire Michigan actors. But actor Jeff Stetson, who has been involved in Detroit film projects for several years, says it isn’t difficult for non-residents to work around the system. “Michigan film incentives have brought a lot of big business,” says Stetson, “but they often bring their own people.”

Actors and extras can qualify for the full credit as residents if they have lived in Michigan for at least sixty days. Non-resident actors and extras only receive a 30 percent credit. But writers and directors receive the full tax credit regardless of where they live. Many of the jobs that will be created, “are transitory and highly specialized,” Stetson said.

When the recession struck the auto industry, a lot of doors closed in Michigan, the way GM’s did in Pontiac. But even Ellis, the retired engineer, agrees that this new project is good for the state.

“Oh yeah, this will help,” he says. “I don’t know what else could go there. It isn’t like we need any more shopping malls.”

More from this series: