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Past and future are side-by-side at the redeveloped historic Willow Run plant
November 20, 2019
Rosie the Riveter may be the most famous former occupant of the iconic Willow Run assembly plant near Detroit, but she would surely not recognize the high-tech occupant poised to move into the iconic property after an environmental cleanup co-managed by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). Among the most important places in Michigan's industrial history, the Ypsilanti Township plant churned out World War II bomber planes as a key link in the Arsenal of Democracy. Eighty years after the last World War II fighter plane was assembled there, it's becoming an important part of our technology-based future.
The Willow Run assembly plant in Ypsilanti Township is among the most important places in Michigan's industrial history. Eighty years after the last World War II fighter plane was assembled there, it's become an important part of our technology-based future. The contaminated site in the heart of southeast Michigan's auto businesses and research facilities has been redeveloped into the American Center for Mobility (ACM), a simulated smart city where connected and autonomous vehicle technologies (that's driverless cars that talk to each other!) are tested and validated. A new museum inside the assembly plant remembers Willow Run's history while outside, automotive and technology companies partner at ACM to test mobility solutions for our future.
Ford Motor Company built the Willow Run assembly plant to assemble B-24 Liberator bomber planes for World War II. In 1941, 42,000 people were employed at Willow Run, which at the time was the largest factory in the world. Rose Will Monroe, the original Rosie the Riveter, worked at Willow Run. Her iconic image symbolized thousands of women who worked in jobs traditionally held by men to support the war effort.
In 1953, General Motors bought the plant and assembled transmissions there until 2010. The Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response (RACER) Trust was created in March 2011 by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to manage environmental contamination and redevelop Willow Run and other facilities owned by General Motors.
Soil and groundwater were contaminated during Willow Run's long manufacturing history. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and RACER Trust partnered to co-manage environmental risks and facilitate the site's renewal. RACER Trust contained Willow Run's contamination under soil and concrete caps using a $35.8 million fund established by the bankruptcy court. The fund indefinitely protects public health and the environment. EGLE, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and RACER Trust collaborated to ensure that future property owners would be protected from liability for preexisting contamination.
Willow Run's redevelopment began in the early 2000s, soon after RACER Trust acquired the property from the bankruptcy court. The Yankee Air Museum preserved a section of the Willow Run bomber plant, which will become the Smithsonian-affiliated National Museum of Aviation and Technology at Historic Willow Run. The ACM, a public-private nonprofit partnership, built a multi-million smart city test center with a 2.5-mile highway, tunnels, overpasses, intersections, and roundabouts to simulate different driving environments. The test center is integrated with an intelligent transportation system so that mobility companies and the state and federal governments can research, test and validate new mobility technologies. The economic impact from Willow Run's reuse is sure to be felt throughout the region.
Photo credit: American Center for Mobility