DETROIT – Fiat Chrysler wants to make the biggest investment in Detroit in decades: $2.5 billion to expand two plants, create 4,950 jobs and add millions of dollars to the city’s tax rolls.
What’s not to love?
Plenty, it turns out, judging from more than 400 residents who attended the first community meeting Wednesday since Fiat Chrysler announced expansion plans to great fanfare last month.
“This is not for the greater good of the community. This is for the greater good of one company,” said longtime resident Jackie Ford at the hearing.
The sentiment was a popular one among the standing-room only crowd who jammed into the United Auto Workers Local 7 hall on the east side for a meeting hosted by the City of Detroit to gather community input and support for the plan.
Across the street loomed Fiat Chrysler’s Conner Avenue Plant, which closed in 2017. That symbolism may not have been lost on the crowd, which was so large dozens were turned away and another meeting was scheduled for Thursday night.
For as much as Detroit has a rich automotive legacy, the city also has a history of developers failing to deliver on promises in return for tax breaks, including the ongoing controversy over the Ilitch organization’s stalled plans to rebuild neighborhoods around the publicly financed Little Caesars Arena.
So for two hours Wednesday, officials from FCA, the City of Detroit and UAW said the right things: The renovations at the Mack Avenue and Jefferson Avenue plants to build Jeeps and other cars would create jobs and improve neighborhoods without displacing residents, businesses or churches.
“We had a lot of places we could have built a plant. You know that,” Ron Stallworth, an FCA external affairs manager, told the crowd. “We’re proud it’s going in Detroit.”
But for two hours, many local residents remained skeptical.
About 10,000 residents live in neighborhoods surrounding the plants, and they sought details about traffic during construction, job quotas, tax breaks and how much community input would shape the deal.
Many of those details have yet to be hashed out.
Stallworth said FCA plans to build kiosks to make it easier for local residents to apply for work, but wouldn’t pledge how many Detroiters would get jobs that start at $17 an hour for unskilled positions and $34 an hour for skilled ones.
“My wish is every one of those 4,950 jobs new jobs would be for residents,” he said. “If I could pray to God and get a wish, that’s what I’d pray for.”
Cindy Estrada, a UAW vice president, said the union wants temporary workers to fill the first jobs at the expansion. That would leave about 2,000 new jobs.
Would they be filled by neighborhood residents? Ford and others were dubious, but said they believe residents would be inconvenienced by road closures and traffic.
The neighborhood near the plant expansion is older and poorer than much of Detroit. The census tract just north of the Jefferson plant has a median age is 52 and median income of $12,751, about half that of Wayne County as a whole.
“This is a bunch of bull,” said Ford, who was among those who left the meeting early. “They already know what they are going to do.”
Not so, said Detroit Councilman Andre Spivey, who represents the east side.
“There is no deal. Nothing is done. Nothing at all,” he told the crowd repeatedly.
‘This is your community’
The City of Detroit has until the end of April to acquire 200 acres necessary for the project, and get neighbors to sign a community benefits agreement, which outlines the business’s obligations to the community as part of the deal. Otherwise, the deal could be imperiled.
The accelerated timeline was a frequent source of complaints. Neighbors met Wednesday to begin the process of a electing a nine-member neighborhood advisory council to negotiate a community benefits agreement with Fiat Chrysler.
Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones implored residents to stay involved and seek concessions from Fiat Chrysler. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)
Such an agreement can contain promises such as traffic improvements, community investments such as playgrounds or recreation centers, jobs quotas and worker training.
“This is your community. You know what you want in your community, so you’ve got to stay engaged,” City Council President Brenda Jones told the crowd.
“When we stay engaged, do you hear us?” a woman asked in response.
‘Rush, rush rush’
The neighborhoods group must forward a proposal to the City Council by April 12, giving it less than a month.
“Of course I want the expansion, but don’t come down here and say you want our opinion, and then it’s rush, rush, rush, let’s get it done,” said lifelong resident Jacqueline Stewart, who spent much of the meeting holding a photo of a road set to be closed for the project.
The neighborhood councils were created from a community benefits ordinance approved by city voters in 2016 that requires such agreements for large projects that are worth more than $75 million, receive $1 million in tax abatements or more than $1 million in land transfers.
The FCA deal is the 10th project to fall under the ordinance. Others have involved the redevelopment of the Herman Kiefer health complex, the Detroit Pistons training complex in New Center, and downtown projects including the rehabilitation of the former Detroit Free Press building and planned skyscraper on the site of the razed Hudson Department Store.
Initial community meetings can be lively, but the ordinance and community input works, said former City Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel, who attended Wednesday’s hearing.
She served as chair of the neighborhood advisory council in the Corktown neighborhood that negotiated a community development agreement with Ford Motor Co. over plans to renovate the long-closed Michigan Central Depot.
The neighborhood council secured $22.5 million in benefits from Ford for the neighborhood, Cockrel said, everything from workforce development, park improvements and affordable housing to protection of pheasants in north Corktown.
“Everything can be always be improved, but this ordinance can work to produce benefits for the community,” Cockrel told Bridge.
Another community meeting about the Fiat plans is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the UAW Hall, 2600 Conner.