With the assembly line at GM's plant in Southwest Baltimore idle, the search is on to find a developer with deep pockets to take on the task of bringing one of the city's largest and most prominent industrial properties back to life.
Developers nationwide have had mixed success turning GM's former manufacturing behemoths into something useful. Of the 112 plants the company has shuttered since 1979, some have been transformed into everything from shopping centers to million-dollar condominium developments. Others have remained vacant, weedy monuments to America's declining manufacturing base.
State officials envision the site on Broening Highway being reborn as a "global trade and technology center," with a mid-rise office park, warehousing and distribution space for the increasingly cramped port of Baltimore and a hoped-for GM research facility focused on the development of hydrogen fuel cells and hybrid vehicle technology.
But dreams of restarting a stalled economic engine in the heart of the city will depend on the interest of developers, who often shy away from contaminated brownfield sites, and a weakened GM's willingness to invest potentially tens of millions of dollars to clean up the site. The process could take years to evolve.
"We'd like to see if we can get 3,000 to 5,000 jobs on that site in the next three to five years," said Aris Melissaratos, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development. The state has offered to play real estate broker for GM by lining up potential tenants.
"We have had discussions with GM saying, 'Before you knock down the first brick in that building, I want to have broken ground on at least two other [new] buildings,'" he said.
All would be done with private investments, plus some potential state incentives, Melissaratos said.
Industry analysts question whether GM would give serious consideration to placing a research facility in Baltimore, especially after so many years of preparation to close the plant.
And the plan recalls one Melissaratos pitched unsuccessfully in December 2003, when a high-powered delegation consisting of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger flew to Detroit in one last attempt to convince GM to keep the plant open.
Melissaratos proposed creating a global free-trade zone around the plant to facilitate vehicle exports. He also pitched the idea of retrofitting the plant to create small numbers of "boutique" vehicles, which could include alternative-fuel cars and trucks.
Developers are much more optimistic about the warehousing and office components of the state's proposal.
Melissaratos said he has already had discussions with potential tenants - including multinational companies he declined to name - and GM officials have attended several meetings to discuss the plans. He says the project is "on the fast track" and that GM likes what it is hearing, though the company is cautious in its assessment.
"Typically, it's not uncommon for it to take several years for that process to play itself out," said John M. McDonald, who works in GM's economic development and enterprise services department. "The state has asked for it to be fast-tracked, and we're doing that in this regard."
The company is in the process of determining the market's appetite for the property. The state has asked GM to donate the land and building to make it more attractive to developers, but that is an unlikely prospect given the company's growing financial troubles and restless shareholders.
"We can't just be disposing of assets without a good business case to do it," McDonald said. "GM is in a business that is highly competitive and we have to maximize our return. We have to think of shareholders."
Industry experts said the cost of the land will depend in part on how it is used. For example, if warehousing is located on the site, it's possible the plant's thick, reinforced concrete slab can be left in place, eliminating the need to dig up soil beneath the plant and clear away potential pollutants. However, anything that requires removing the slab would cost significantly more - $30 million to $50 million, if history is any guide, some analysts estimate.