Lights, camera, action at old Pontiac truck plant

January 30, 2011
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LANSING — When the General Motors Pontiac Assembly Center opened in 1972 to build medium-duty trucks, there was no way to predict the diverse subsequent uses of the 130-acre site.

The latest transformation is construction of the new Raleigh Michigan Studios. Ground broke last July on what was first named Motown Motion Pictures. Linden Nelson, the chief executive officer of the project, changed the name to align the studio more closely with film and with Raleigh’s international reputation.

The partners have said that Michigan’s 42 percent tax break for film production is “the best in the country right now.”

Raleigh, the country’s longest-running film studio, is expected to create 5,139 new jobs, including 3,600 directly, and is among three studio projects that the former Granholm administration said are expected to create nearly 6,000 jobs.

The studio will be equipped for 3D animation and special effects. It also will serve as a learning center for film students from the Detroit College for Creative Studies and Oakland Community College.

The studio is being built on part of what used to be GM’s Centerpoint business campus. The project includes two new buildings. The finished studio will include the renovated office building that’s already there.

According to Mark Corey, a project manager for partner Walbridge, the first building will be completed April 23 and the second also will be completed sometime in the spring.

About 135 Walbridge employees are working per day, Corey said.

“To have new construction, and a new industry, in this city that has been hit so hard by the auto company decline is very special,” he said.

Indirect jobs already have been created. Curtis DeDobbeleer works with Mount Clemens-based New Image Building Services Inc., cleaning the facilities where Walbridge construction project managers and Raleigh Studios executives have offices.

“We just started, but there’s about 10 of us so far,” DeDobbeleer said. “We’ve been really busy.”

The site was vacant after heavy- and medium-duty truck production stopped in 1989. Then, in 1993, GM announced that it would sell the property for development as a business campus and lease it back as the new Truck Product Center.

That rehabilitation created thousands of jobs and transformed a section of the lifeless manufacturing center into a workplace for GM engineers. It was home to the second-largest business office in Oakland County. But the new facility was used only for a short period before becoming vacant yet again.

Mark Ellis was a GM engineering executive of crash worthiness at the Centerpoint building with about 4,000 other employees when it opened in 1996 until the division relocated nearly eight years later.

“It was great working there,” said Ellis, now retired. “It was the first time all of the engineering people were together like that.”

The expansive grounds were well-kept, he said. A tree was planted for every employee and the exterior was color-coded to make it easier to navigate.

“We felt such pride and ownership over the building, with less extraneous corporate stuff going on,” Ellis said. “It was hard to move out after eight years.”

The 4,000 or so trees remain. Much of the grounds are grown over with shrubs and grass. Walkway lamps have rusted to the point of collapse. But the building itself still appears eerily perfect and clean. Through the revolving glass door, visitors can see the grandeur that once brought so much pride, even though the hall is littered with dead indoor trees.

The financial impetus for the project comes from state tax breaks for film projects.

“The infrastructure credit was put in place to encourage the building of film infrastructure projects, including studios, sound stages and post houses,” said Michelle Begnoche, a communications representative from the Michigan Film Office. Approved projects receive a 25 percent business tax credit. Another state incentive offers a tax break of up to 42 percent for film productions projects.

Film incentives are designed to motivate producers to hire Michigan workers. But actor Jeff Stetson, who has been involved in Detroit film projects for several years, says it isn’t difficult for non-residents to work around the system. “Michigan film incentives have brought a lot of big business,” says Stetson, “but they often bring their own people.”

Many of the jobs that will be created “are transitory and highly specialized,” Stetson said.

Actors and extras can qualify for the full credit as residents if they’ve lived in the state for at least 60 days. Non-resident actors and extras receive only a 30 percent credit. But writers and directors receive the full credit regardless of where they live.

When the recession struck the auto industry, a lot of doors closed in Michigan, the way GM’s did in Pontiac. But even Ellis, the retired engineer, agrees that the new project is good for the state.

“Oh yeah, this will help,” he says. “I don’t know what else could go there. It isn’t like we need any more shopping malls.”

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