Hopes for rebirth at former Delaware auto plant

After a decade of dormancy, the former GM vehicle assembly plant near Newport is about to get a multi-million dollar overhaul.

Listen 5:32

Since opening in 1947, the plant on Boxwood Road employed thousands of Delawareans. As many as 1,200 cars a day once rolled off the assembly line. From cars like Chevrolet’s Chevette and Beretta to the Pontiac Tempest and eventually the Saturn Sky, hundreds of thousands of vehicles hit the road after being built in Delaware.

Workers assemble a Pontiac Solstice, the final car produced at the GM assembly plant near Newport in 2009. (Courtesy of Stan Kaminski)

But all that work stopped on July 28, 2009.

A silver Pontiac Solstice was the final car to roll off the line as General Motors closed the Wilmington Assembly plant amid the company’s bankruptcy proceedings. Workers signed their names on the car that marked the end of auto manufacturing in the Northeast.

Stan Kaminski worked at the plant for more than 30 years in the hard-trim department where he installed seats and other interior components.

“It was a real hit, plus I lost my job,” said Kaminski, who also saw many of his co-workers loose their jobs or be transferred to other GM plants.

There was a glimmer of hope in the fall of 2009 as electric car maker Fisker Automotive announced plans to move into GM’s old spot. There was a grand celebration of what seemed to be a last-minute reprieve for hundreds of workers.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden stoked those hopes during a rally at the plant with leaders from Fisker and members of the community.

“Imagine with me, imagine the day when 2,000 workers are once again passing through those gates,” Biden told the cheering crowd.

But the workers didn’t come. Despite the hype, Fisker never produced a car at the plant. Even with more than $500 million in loans from the U.S. Department of Energy, Fisker’s plans to make 75,000 to 100,000 electric cars per year fizzled.

The inside of the former GM plant has been empty since the site closed in 2009. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Today, the plant is much as it was in 2009. The massive buildings sit dark and empty.

But all that’s about to change. Local developer Tom Hanna has big plans for the future of this massive property.

“The idea that 1,200 cars a day were once rolled off the lines here, to me, is really just powerful to even think about. We hope to restore this property back to the economic energy that it once was for this community,” said Hanna, president of commercial real estate developer Harvey, Hanna & Associates.

And redeveloping the plant isn’t just a professional goal for Hanna — it’s a personal one, too.

“To me, it’s sentimental. My uncle and my grandfather and my father all worked in this plant, and there’s a piece here that’s really a part of us, that’s really almost overwhelmed with the idea that so many families in our area had their livelihood supported by this plant,” he said.

Harvey, Hanna & Associates purchased the Boxwood Road site in October 2017 for an undisclosed amount. The company now plans to tear down the existing 3.2 million square-foot structures and build four or five modern buildings to house new employers.

“We spent many months trying to find corporate clients that could really find re-use value in the existing buildings. That proved to be futile,” Hanna said. “The trend with industrial real estate these days is really in logistics and fulfillment, and that’s what the market has indicated is the highest and best use here.”

This initial sketch shows how the former GM site could be redeveloped into a logistics and fulfillment center. (photo courtesy Harvey Hanna and Associates)

For logistics and fulfillment, think businesses like Amazon, shipping products around the East Coast and beyond.

Hanna presented the plans to the community at a recent town hall meeting. Nearby residents like Debbie McQuilken mainly had questions about the noise trucks and trains would make moving product in and out of the site if it becomes home to a massive logistics and fulfillment center, although she supports the redevelopment project.

“I’m all for this going through. I’m all for the Boxwood plant to be refurbished, bring jobs, bring a hope, I guess, for this area,” McQuilken said.

There were a few questions about environmental contamination at the site after its 40 years of use in manufacturing. The developers have been working with Delaware environmental regulators to explore the scope of that contamination. So far, out of six areas the plant is divided into, three of them have been given a certificate of completion of remedy, meaning redevelopment work can begin. A fourth site had no contamination. A plan of action to remedy the remaining two sections is still being developed. Environmentally, nearly two-thirds of the site is ready for redevelopment, Hanna said.

The plans also have support from local elected leaders like New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer.

“From day one since I took office 18 months ago, we’ve been working very closely with the new owners of Boxwood … and they have filed an exploratory plan, that plan is going forward,” said Meyer.

State Sen. Anthony Delcollo represents the area around the plant, and said after the disappointment of GM closing and the loss of Fisker’s planned rescue, the site’s rebirth would be a welcome sight.

“Here we have a local company that appears to be committed to this community,” he said. “I think it would be a story of hope, a story of what a community that works together can achieve.”

The site is projected to have a major economic impact that will add $281 million to the economy every year when it’s fully operational. An impact study commissioned by the developers determined that when fully staffed with more than 2,100 workers, the site would contribute $7.6 million in tax revenues from total employee compensation of $105 million. The demolition and reconstruction alone will create 160 jobs and generate more than $27 million in economic output, the study found.

“Privately, they’re saying — what they’re telling me is — they think those are conservative estimates,” Meyer said. “They’ve had them come in and do a study, they’re aiming much higher and we’re collaborating with them to make sure that the environment is there so that they can thrive.”

And while there’s optimism that a rebirth of the site will bring jobs and economic growth, it will be bittersweet for former GM workers like Stan Kaminski.

“I never was in the Chrysler plant, but when I drive by there after they tore it down, that hurt, so I know this one’s going to hurt, too,” he said.

Hanna expects to submit a construction plan sometime in July, with demolition starting before the end of the year. All this work only pays off if tenants agree to move in, and so far, there’s been no announcements of any companies signing a lease yet.

“It could be a great ending to a turbulent time in the economy,” Hanna said. “This could be a great ending.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal