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Air Museum hopes to save part of historic plant where Rosie the Riveter worked

With the touch of a button, a massive two-story-tall bay door opens slowly, as an insistent alarm sounds, to reveal part of the former Willow Run bomber plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan. A heavy waft of must and dampness rushes out from the dark interior.

Once, scores of B-24 bombers exited these bay doors, on their way to aid the American war effort. 

"It works better than my garage door back home," says Grant Trigger with a grin, as the more than 60-year-old doors lift.

Trigger is the Michigan Cleanup Manager for RACER Trust, which handles the vacant GM Willow Run Assembly Plant, along with scores of other properties abandoned by the automaker as part of its bankruptcy reorganization in 2009. 

The factory began its life as a Ford Motor Company World War II factory, famous for being the place where Rosie the Riveter worked. GM later bought the plant and converted it to make automobiles.

But soon it will be demolished, unless a modest museum can raise more than $4.5 million in the next 15 days.

The Yankee Air Museum hopes to house its air history exhibits and its collection of historic airplanes under one roof here. Currently, the museum is in one location, and the airplanes are in another, after a devastating fire burned the museum's former collections and hangar bay to the ground in 2009.

Museum organizers have already raised several million, including a $2 million donation by the GM Foundation, the philanthropic arm of General Motors. But the group needs millions more to seal the deal.

The mission of the RACER Trust is to find new uses for old GM properties and buildings. But in this case, the sprawling 4.5-million-square-foot Willow Run site is just too huge and too outdated for any modern developer. So, the buildings and the famous factory will all come down if the museum fails to raise the required funds.

The two groups aren't revealing the actual purchase price they've agreed on, although that is likely to be nominal, since the facility really has no market value. 

Salvaging and renovating part of the factory will be extremely expensive. New walls will have to be built, since part of the 180,000-square-foot bay area will be left open to the elements when the rest of the factory is torn down. The renovation itself is likely to cost more than $8 million.

The factory played an equally important, though less recognized role in history than making B-24 bombers, says Mike Montgomery, a consultant to the project. The plant was, he says, essentially the birthplace of the modern American workforce.

"This was an integrated, unionized plant where men and women both worked in manufacturing jobs for equal pay and equal work, in the 1940s, when that was absolutely not the norm in American industry."

Officials with the Yankee Air Museum say plan B, if they can't raise the funds, is to build a hangar near the current site of the museum exhibits, which includes a Rosie the Riveter display. The museum sits not far from Willow Run, so they'll be able to watch the bulldozers demolishing the factory.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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