Empty Places: New life for historic GM complex
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, Mich. 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.
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.
Strikers at Fisher Plant No. 1 wanted recognition for the nascent UAW.
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.
The old GM complex is now home to Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy's headquarters.
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.
Last year Diplomat filled more than 600,000 prescriptions
“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.”
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.