Empty Places: New life for historic GM complex in Flint

November 30, 2011

By Kate Davidson

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(Photo courtesy of Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy)
Last year Diplomat filled more than 600,000 prescriptions.
(Photo by Kate Davidson)
Workers at Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy prepare custom prescriptions.
(Photo courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University)
Strikers at Fisher Plant No. 1 wanted recognition for the nascent UAW.
(Photo courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University)
Crowds gather in support of the sit-down strikers at Fisher Body Plant No. 1.

FLINT — There may be no better example of how the industrial Midwest is changing than the site of the old Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan.  It’s one of the factories sit-down strikers occupied in the 1930s.  The plant made tanks during World War II.  It was later closed, gutted and reborn as a GM design center.  But GM abandoned the site after bankruptcy and the new occupants don’t make cars.  They sell very expensive prescription drugs.

There’s one group of experts who can always tell you the history and significance of an old factory.  They’re the guys at the bar across the street.

Dan Wright is still a regular at The Caboose Lounge.  He worked at Fisher Body No. 1 briefly in the 1970s.

“The bars were always full and restaurants were always full and stores were always full,” he says.  “And all these stores, bars and restaurants you go to now, there’s nobody there.  And it’s sad that Flint died the way it did.”

Now Michigan’s governor says there’s a financial emergency in Flint, the once prosperous birthplace of GM.  In fact, seven thousand people worked at Fisher Body No. 1 when workers sat down in late 1936, demanding recognition for the United Auto Workers.

“We’re actually standing in the area, very close right now, where the 1937 sit down strike was,” says Phil Hagerman, president and CEO of Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy.

Diplomat moved in earlier this year.  The company specializes in drugs that target complex medical conditions like cancer, hemophilia, MS and HIV/AIDS.  Many produce side effects, so nurses here call patients to make sure they stick to their treatment plans.

“Specialty pharmacy is the fastest growing component in the pharmacy industry,” says Hagerman.  “Traditional pharmacy is growing at two to five percent a year.  Specialty pharmacy is growing at 15 to 25 percent a year.”

Diplomat hired more than two hundred people this year.  Phil Hagerman says the company is on track to top a billion dollars in sales next year.

“We’re distributing as many as two thousand or more prescriptions a day around the country, shipping to every state every day from this building,” he says.

The building highlights the transformation of the industrial Midwest.  GM shuttered the sprawling Fisher Body No. 1 plant in the 80s and much of it was demolished.  The footprint of the complex shrank dramatically.  But the steel and concrete of this building’s main structure were retrofitted into an engineering and design center for GM, housed in the Great Lakes Technology Center.

Diplomat later bought about half the space and it’s still enormous: 550,000 square feet.  That’s more than one thousand square feet for each of the 450 employees here.  The other half of the complex is now a biomedical campus, run by the company IINN.

“How often do normal business rules allow a company to have a ten year growth footprint?” Diplomat’s Phil Hagerman asks.  “It just doesn’t happen. ‘Cause the cost of the building is so great.  But because we acquired this from an auction process at a very, very low cost, we have a building that we know we can grow into for about ten years.”

So, that’s one advantage of acquiring property discarded by industrial giants.  Advantage #2: 1700 cubicles left behind.  Advantage #3: Random industrial signs that read: ‘Caution: Pedestrian traffic. Sound horn’.  And advantage #4: The government loves you, especially if you’re a high-tech or medical company.  In fact, Diplomat won’t pay property taxes here for almost 15 years, and it got a 62 million dollar tax break from the state.  In return, CEO Phil Hagerman says he’ll hire four thousand people in the next two decades.

But thousands of people used to stream across the street to local businesses every week. At The Caboose Lounge, waitress Janet Anderson says the new workers at Diplomat don’t come in yet, but she’s hopeful.

“I do good breakfasts,” she says.  “Real good breakfasts you can ask anybody in here.”

And these days, hope itself might be a welcome sign of change in Flint.

Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between Michigan Radio, WBEZ and Ideastream in Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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