Residents in Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood are cautiously optimistic about how the American Center for Mobility (ACM) automated vehicle testing facility will impact their community when the first phase of the project opens in December.
The facility will inhabit the historic Willow Run site, which has long played an integral role in the West Willow community and the Ypsi area in general. Ypsi Township supervisor Brenda Stumbo, who has held local elected office for 30 years, witnessed how the community was affected by the loss of about 900 jobs and $1 million in tax revenue when the General Motors plant at Willow Run closed in 2009. She says the domino effect caused by the closure sparked a devastating "economic tsunami" because the community had relied on the plant as a major job supplier since it opened in 1941 for the production of B-24 bombers.
Stumbo is hesitant to put too much stock in one new development since she knows what can happen when the community becomes too reliant on the auto industry. But she believes ACM has the potential to have a hugely positive impact on the community by attracting talent and businesses that want to relocate near the facility and providing employment and educational opportunities for existing residents.
"There’s always going to be a space for automotive, but I think you have to diversify," Stumbo says. "You can’t just put all your eggs in one basket as a community in case something happens, because it could happen again, right? Something could happen again, so we need to prepare for the future to make sure that all our businesses are doing well and we have a diversified business space."
ACM CEO John Maddox says the Willow Run site appealed to ACM because it offers over 500 acres in the heart of southeast Michigan's auto industry. He says ACM is able to use a 2.4-mile loop of existing infrastructure, specifically Michigan Avenue and two triple-decker bridges, as a real-world testing area.
The first phase of construction, which includes the repurposing of a stretch of US-12, began this spring and will end this month. The next phases of construction will focus on the creation of ACM's campus, including an office complex, research complex, and educational institute at the Willow Run site. All of the construction projects will likely be done by the end of 2019.
"We see this redevelopment — reindustrialization, if you will — as a huge opportunity for the immediate neighborhood, but really for Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County, and Michigan as a whole, and really even for the United States, for that matter," Maddox says.
Stumbo agrees that ACM's reach will extend beyond the immediate community. She describes the process of bringing the ACM facility to the Willow Run site as "an amazing collaboration of people who had the same goal." She says politicians, private companies, and educational institutions at the federal, state, and local levels came together to make it happen.
"We really appreciate all of the efforts of all of the partners that came together and that helped raise up our community for this development," Stumbo says. "I think that it’s because of this that we have hope for our future."
Stumbo credits the public hearings focusing on the ACM development with giving West Willow residents the ability to share longstanding concerns over pedestrian safety and traffic with the Michigan Department of Transportation. Stumbo believes the ACM facility was the catalyst in getting those concerns addressed through the US-12 project.
New West Willow Neighborhood Association (NWWNA) president JoAnn McCollum says she's only heard good things from neighbors regarding the ACM facility. But she says the road construction has slowed down the time it takes to get in and out of the neighborhood.
West Willow resident Michael Starkey has heard some complaints from neighbors about the road construction, but he thinks those complications are necessary to make sorely needed infrastructure improvements. He believes the ACM facility is a "dynamite" project that will be even better than the bomber plant.
West Willow resident Alex Thomas, who serves on the NWWNA's advisory board, thinks the overall feeling in the neighborhood is positive, but residents who pay attention to local politics are skeptical. He thinks some of his neighbors feel a general suspicion of the powers that be and have low expectations that politicians and business interests will consider them in decision making.
Thomas would like to see the creation of a community benefits agreement to ensure the continuation of the intimate connection between the Willow Run site and the West Willow neighborhood. He thinks the focus of ACM's involvement should be youth-oriented so West Willow's children are prepared for the jobs of tomorrow.
At minimum, Thomas wants to see the creation of a tutoring program for local students who want to learn from ACM employees. At maximum, he wants the establishment of a world-class science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) academy for kids across southeast Michigan.
"I want part of the ACM’s community outreach to be directly involved in West Willow in an effort to raise the STEM achievement of students K-12," Thomas says.
He hopes to use his experience in both the nonprofit and business worlds to bridge the gap between ACM and the West Willow neighborhood. He thinks the NWWNA should continue to strengthen itself internally so it's prepared to represent the neighborhood and approach the ACM about potential ways it can get involved in the community.
Stumbo agrees that it's important "to focus on getting our kids ready for these great jobs that are going to be here." She hopes the ACM's presence will encourage local kids to become more interested in STEM fields.
"We have to look at our young children and have them focus on robotics and STEM. It’s a different focus from the assembly line workers, but there’s going to be endless opportunity for people in our community and our kids and our grandkids to work in this field," Stumbo says. "I think that makes our future bright. It provides the hope that we need."
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.