Since General Motors was founded there, Flint, Michigan’s fate has been closely intertwined with the automaker. That was true when the company’s success served as the economic engine of the city for decades, and after its withdrawal left the city with a broken economy that would culminate in its ongoing water crisis.
The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, created in the 1920s by GM’s co-founder, is leading a proposal to turn an abandoned automotive complex into a new kind of industrial hub for the city—ideally, one with environmental and community benefits. It’s one of many extensive efforts the foundation has made over the years to benefit Flint—in the wake of the damage GM and structural inequalities left behind—while the city continues to suffer devastating poverty. We've argued in the past that Mott's local investments, totaling over $1 billion, have proven no match against the larger forces arrayed against Flint, and offer a case study of the limits of urban philanthropy. Still, the foundation has never given up the fight and keeps trying new things.
- A Foundation Gives $1 Billion in One City and Things (Mostly) Get Worse. What’s the Lesson?
- What Should Philanthropy's Role Be When Public Systems Fail? Flint As Case Study
Mott is now driving a $23 million plan that would redevelop part of Buick City, once one of the largest car manufacturing complexes in the country, into an eco-industrial park that could create an estimated 300 jobs and community resources like trails and green space. The site has been empty since GM shut it down and then sold it off as part of its bankruptcy in 2010.
This project is still very young, as it’s just entering a due diligence stage, and the property has not been purchased. Mott has agreed to contribute $16.5 million in mission-related investments that would be combined with state funds, and hopefully serve as a magnet for additional financing.
An eco-industrial park might sound like a made-up thing, but it’s a real sustainable development concept that’s been around since the 1990s and has been put into action around the world with varying results. The intent is to create industrial facilities that have positive impacts on a community’s health and environmental footprint, and are beneficially woven into surrounding neighborhoods. They require multiple tenant companies to coordinate to improve environmental performance, with one company’s waste products put to use by another, for example, and often expanding renewable energy.
The Buick City park proposal includes light industrial and warehouse space, along with trails that could connect residents and the property to the Flint River. Possible expansion could involve a solar park in another section of the unused complex.
Such adaptive reuse of factory sites is popular in post-industrial cities trying to cultivate more sustainable economies and livable places. They can serve as anchor properties to draw in businesses and residents.
Philanthropic institutions have also been playing significant roles in places that are reeling from economic distress. As a result, we’ve seen examples of just how powerful foundations can be within their local economies, but also the failures of philanthropy when it comes to systemic poverty and inequality. Flint is a prime example, with not just Mott but other Midwestern funders trying to come to the city’s aid, particularly in the wake of the water and public health crisis it’s suffered for years now.
There’s certainly a lot of symbolism to unpack with this proposal, about company towns, the auto industry, and legacies of wealth creation. But at the end of the day, if it goes forward, the test of its success will be whether it can drive economic growth while serving the community and existing middle- and low-income residents for the long term. That could demand public involvement in planning, job training programs, or a strong community benefit agreement, for example. In short, such a park would need to do what GM ultimately did not.