A wrecking crew tore the corner off the car painting building at Ford Motor Company's former St. Paul assembly plant Monday morning, marking the beginning of the end for the company's nearly 100-year run making vehicles in Minnesota.
Along Ford Parkway, the street in St. Paul named after the plant that opened its doors in 1925, there wasn't a lot of sweet to temper the sadness.
Denny Dickhausen, 66, lives a couple blocks away from the plant. He got a job on the assembly line when he was 23, and retired from the plant when it closed in 2011. He watched the demolition begin from the parking lot.
"I'm very sad, you know, because I've got very good memories," Dickhausen said. "When I started in 1970, the first day I started here ... some of the older guys were telling me that you know, 'don't get used to it, because it's going to be closing down.' So I spent close 40 years of my life here. It was a good ride."
Video of demolition
It'll be a little bumpier ride on the 150-acre site for the next couple of years. Heavy equipment will be ripping down the paint building on the east side of the site first, then the original Henry Ford-era factory. Steel and other metals will be shipped out for scrap. Whatever's left will be hauled to a landfill.
The demolition will also clear the way to find out exactly what Ford left behind. Lubricants, solvents and other chemicals may have been waiting for generations under the factory's slab floors. Ford will be sampling the area as the demolition proceeds.
"Ford takes any pollution that they put here with them," said City Council member Chris Tolbert, who represents the neighborhood.
He said getting a clean site will be a top priority for the city — the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is working with Ford.
RE-DEVELOPMENT WILL REQUIRE PATIENCE
But he also points out that with Bus Rapid Transit planned for Snelling Avenue, just to the east, and the Blue Line light rail line just across the river, the site could anchor a street car link between the two and help spark a new generation of transit development.
He said he'd also like to see a signature park paired with new building in the area, something like Minneapolis is planning near the new Vikings stadium.
"Having that kind of epicenter of a park really can spur that development, a place where people can bring their dogs, bring their bikes, bring their kids," Tolbert said.
Cecile Bedor, head of St. Paul's planning and economic development department, said the city hopes to encourage a developer to replicate what's made the nearby Highland Village area successful. She envisions a mix of commercial development and different types of housing capitalizing on the nearby Mississippi River.
"I think the opportunities are just endless of what you can do on 125 acres," Bedor said.
But she cautions it won't happen quickly.
"It will probably be a 10- to 15-year cycle to get the entire site redeveloped," Bedor said.
PRESERVING PART OF HISTORY
In the meantime, a demolition contractor hired by Ford will be tearing up the massive plant itself. Manager Mike Hogan said work will be limited to about nine hours a day, and that wrecking crews are wrapping the plant's perimeter fencing with fabric to help keep dust and noise out of the surrounding neighborhood.
Hogan said Ford wants to be remembered as a good neighbor, even after the company leaves.
"We're going to remove some of those light fixtures that we believe are 1925 vintage. And we're going to set those aside and then work with the city to determine can be reused on the site here or somewhere else in the city as a legacy of the Ford plant," Hogan said.
The demolition itself is expected to run through at least 2014.
The history of the Ford plant mirrored the development of the entire auto industry. Historian Brian McMahon offered a photographic tour of the plant in this 2011 video, produced by MPR's Matt Sepic and Jennifer Simonson.
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