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Janesville community reflects on 10 years since GM closing

JANESVILLE (WKOW) — It’s been 10 years since the GM Janesville Assembly plant closed, and even though it was expected, it still was a shock to the community.

On December 23, 2008, hundreds of GM workers punched out for the last time at the assembly plant in Janesville, ending dozens of years of SUV production that helped fuel the city’s economy.

Chuck Powell, a former GM worker, was there as his colleagues left work just two days before Christmas, uncertain of their future.

“You just never thought it could happen,” said Powell, who worked at the plant for 23 years. “It definitely hit home when they turned the lights out and the last car went off.”

Bittersweet for Powell, whose father used to work at the Janesville plant as well. He even met his wife at the plant.

“We met at the fitness center,” Powell said. “We were together I think for seven years before we got married.”

As the plant shut its doors, Powell stayed in Milton with his wife, retrained and continued to work for the company for several more years by traveling to other plants as far as Wentzville, Missouri.

“I would work two weeks and come home a week every third week from Wentzville,” said Powell, who traveled nearly 800 miles round trip. “It was a long drive on the mornings going back, it was nice to come home, but it was a long drive leaving home.”

Powell was one of many former Janesville plant workers who made the trek to other states to support himself and his family. Powell eventually retired from GM seven years later and started working full-time at a self-owned construction business.

During the fallout of the plant’s closing, the unemployment rate in Rock County soared to 13.6 percent at its highest point.

A decade later, Janesville’s Economic Development Director, Gale Price, says the city is “in a completely different place.” Price says, as of October, unemployment has dropped to about 2.8 percent, as companies like Dollar General and Shine Medical Technologies move into the city.

“We’ve continued to be able to bring companies here that could capitalize on the geographic location and the ability to get to a lot of markets here in one day,” said Price.

In 2017, Commercial Development Company (CDC) bought the vacant plant in hopes of redeveloping the 250-acre site. Both CDC and Angus-Young Associates, the architectural firm working are working on the development. Demolition of the plant began in April 2018. As of December, much of the plant site’s future remains unknown.

Still, Price says the new development could create many future jobs.

“We could bring 2,000 jobs to that site,” said Price. “They [CDC] are looking at industrial uses for that entire site, we have not had any rail-served sites in Janesville for quite some period of time, that’s going to serve some additional rail-served industrial sites.”

The project is named the Centennial Industrial Park, to commemorate the nearly 100 years the plant stood at its site.

Janesville City Council President Douglas Marklein says the city continues to rebound.

“We know where we’re going and we know how to get there,” said Marklein. “And we’ve got people that are willing to do the hard work to get it done.”

Still, reminders of GM’s legacy remain close to home.

Gerald Kinderman, who retired from GM in 2000, still has the last Chevy Tahoe ever produced at the plant in Janesville. He won the SUV after buying just one ticket for an auction at United Way of Rock County in 2009.

“It’s still hard to believe [I won],” said Kinderman.

Kinderman says he appreciated working at GM.

“I enjoyed going to work, I really did,” Kinderman said.

As this chapter of Janesville’s history comes to a close, those who used to work there say it will never be forgotten.

“It was very depressing, cause you cut off the supply and made a big change,” said Kinderman. “Things were going good but I guess all good things come to an end.”

Nick Buffo

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