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Plan to transform historic Willow Run marks another step toward industrial redemption

Willow Run Factory and B-24 bombers.
U.S. Army Signal Corps
The Willow Run plant was built in 5 months, and at the height of production during WWII, it was producing one B-24 bomber every hour.

It’s been 74 years since Ford Motor finished building its Willow Run plant to build B-24 Liberator bombers. Now the site credited with helping to win World War II is preparing a new chapter in the transportation revolution that Henry Ford’s Model T sparked a century ago.

The American Center for Mobility, a public-private partnership, would transform the barren industrial site into a global hub for testing connected and self-driving cars. It’s an audacious -- and refreshingly bipartisan -- play that seeks to leverage Michigan’s deep engineering talent and industrial heft into a next-generation mobility leader.

This would have seemed impossible before the dark days of 2008 and 2009.

Positioning Willow Run – not Silicon Valley – as the vanguard of the coming mobility revolution is just the latest in a string of reinventions this state could be forgiven for thinking it would never see amid continuing economic calamity. But it is, and with remarkable speed.

Since that financial collapse, Detroit’s auto industry is resurgent, powered by its home market.

Its hometown government is financially restructured and on the economic mend. More than $5 billion in private investment is pouring into downtown Detroit. Recapitalized cultural institutions, corporate relocations and demand for urban housing are real.

They show just how far the city and its defining industry have come from the plywood store windows that greeted visitors for the Super Bowl 10 years ago.

The latest in this arc of historic redemption is Willow Run, a 336-acre patch that otherwise would be devilishly hard to redevelop because of its scale and environmental concerns.

It defined the “Arsenal of Democracy” that helped win the deadliest war the world has ever seen. It came to symbolize post-war prosperity before surrendering to endless decline. Now it’s being repurposed to deliver the technological transformation promising to change how the world moves.

But transformation does not come without disruption.

That’s a brutal fact Willow Run, among so many auto communities, learned over decades of Golden Age success and misbegotten entitlement. Its people paid dearly. The coming mobility wave will be no different. It’s likely to displace people -- some people, anyway -- who drive trucks and delivery vans, taxi cabs and buses, even their own cars.

Mobility promises to restore independence to the young and the old -- to reshape the retail market for cars and trucks, especially in urban areas --to alter the ownership chain of monthly payments and maintenance -- to shuffle the insurance industry and its definition of liability -- to create whole new industries and revenue streams.

Lt Gov. Brian Calley says there are, quote, “risks in change. But there are also opportunities.” He says “we live in an age where people have to reinvent themselves. That’s an attitude I see already here in Michigan.”

He’s right. Maybe.

The problem is a culture here that looks more comfortable scanning the rearview mirror for scapegoats than looking to the challenges ahead.  The good ol’ days of Willow Run and Henry Ford and the Arsenal of Democracy are important parts of our history -- history that should inform the future to escape the mistakes of the past.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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