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Feds give $1.57 million to develop new use for old Fenton Chrysler plant

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 18, 2010 - Standing in the vast, empty space that used to be bustling with Chrysler assembly activity, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley introduced President Barack Obama's "car czar" Thursday as someone whose job it is to "cut through red tape and ensure that the full resources of our federal government are leveraged to assist the workers, communities and regions."

Then Dooley sliced a swath of his own through the bureaucratic jargon and said of Ed Montgomery: "That means give us money."

Montgomery came through, announcing a federal grant of $1.575 million to help find a new use for the Fenton facility that has been closed since the fall of 2008. Additional money from the state of Missouri, St. Louis County and the city of Fenton will increase the fund to $2.1 million. The money will fund efforts to figure out the best way to use the 5 million square feet that sits vacant near Interstates 44 and 270.

Although most of the money is coming from Washington, Montgomery said, the plan for reuse will be determined by those who are closest to the problem.

"A signature part of this effort is that it is designed from the bottom up," he said. "It is the people of Fenton, the people of St. Louis, the people of Missouri who will decide."

He said his office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers , where he took over last March, has worked with many communities hit hard by plant closings and lost jobs in the automotive industry, which was once such a large part of the St. Louis area economy. The local effort, he added, has been notable.

"From day one," Montgomery said, "St. Louis has been one of the most organized and coordinated communities in terms of having a vision for their community."

Denny Coleman, president and chief executive of the St. Louis County Economic Council, said that the money will pay for a study of both the property and the regional economy, to determine the best possible use for the 290-acre site, along with the 2 million square feet of space in the nearby area that had been used by Chrysler suppliers.

The two-track effort will yield a formal report in the next 12 to 18 months, he said.

In the end, Coleman added, the assessment may determine that the best solution is not to find someone who can use the empty plant and bring badly needed jobs to the area but to level the building and start over.

"The scrap metal in there may be worth more than the structures themselves," he said.

Montgomery added: "I don't know that they will make cars here again. The key thing is to figure out what is the best strategy for St. Louis."

The evaluation process is not new to the St. Louis area, Coleman said. He recalled that when Boeing took over McDonnell Douglas, 60,000 local defense jobs were lost, so local businesses and governments had to take a fresh look at what direction the economy might take.

"We came out of that with a bigger economy and a more diversified economy and became a national model of putting people back to work," Coleman said.

John Fernandez, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, said that the cooperative effort for Fenton is the best way for communities to proceed.

"This is the kind of model we embrace," he said, "where you have a strong local collaboration of government and the private sector. That is absolutely essential to develop a formula and a plan that is successful."

Fenton is not the only community going through this exercise. A number of former Chrysler plants around the country -- plants that belonged to the so-called "Oldco," before the company went through its drastic restructuring -- are now under the control of the bankruptcy court. It has put a New Jersey company named Capstone in charge of finding buyers for those properties; Capstone has hired NAI Desco to market the Fenton site.

The spot where Dooley, Montgomery, Coleman and others spoke on Thursday used to be where vans that had been assembled at the Chrysler South plant were brought after they were completed. All of the robotic assembly equipment and other machinery has been stripped from the building, leaving a vast, somewhat eerie empty site that is quite different from what visitors would have seen during the company's busiest times.

"We wouldn't have been able to have a conversation face to face," said Fenton Mayor Dennis Hancock, recalling the cacophony that used to reign there. "The noise was deafening, and now the silence is deafening."

He said the complex used to be the second-largest tax generating entity in St. Louis County.

Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, echoed the theme of many of the speakers that just as a number of jurisdictions have contributed to the money that will help determine what the site will become, many groups will have to come together to make the effort succeed.

"Government isn't going to make this happen," Carnahan said. "We can provide the incentives, we can provide the tools, but it is going to take good old American innovation.

"The closure of the Chrysler plant left a hole in the middle of the St. Louis economy, but it also left us a big opportunity and a big responsibility."

Not everyone was pleased with the government funds earmarked for the Chrysler site. Ed Martin, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run against Carnahan this fall, said in a statement released before Montgomery's visit:

"Where is the fiscal responsibility? Today we hear word that Washington is going to shovel more money at the problem. Not only $1.6 million in federal money but St. Louis County and the city of Fenton are also handing over $500,000. This is insane. It's a total slap in the face to the hardworking people of our district."

But Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., praised the effort.

"This federal funding is a step in the right direction toward bringing large scale manufacturing back to the area and providing a path to new job opportunities for the many skilled workers in this community who have suffered with the closing of the Chrysler facilities," she said in a statement.

"I'm hopeful these grant dollars will help the community negotiate and plan out the next steps toward finding a new usage for the Chrysler plant."

And Hancock, trying to extend the theme of collaboration and cooperation, wasn't above passing the hat.

"If anybody else here brought a check with him," he told the crowd, "let me know."

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