A community effort to save the St. Paul structure is up against a tight time frame.
When a new training center opened at the St. Paul Ford plant in 1999, it was heralded as an innovative example of how the troika of government, private industry and organized labor could partner to smartly prepare workers for the next millennium.
But now, the 40,000-square-foot center lies in wait of the wrecking ball, following the closure of the 86-year-old Ford Ranger truck plant last December.
An effort to save the training center -- which occupies a small corner of the overall Ford site -- has surfaced in recent months, perhaps as a global epicenter for robotics research and manufacturing. But time is tight -- Ford officials have set a November deadline for a legitimate purchase offer.
"Ford should think about protecting its legacy and leaving on a positive note in their 100th year of manufacturing in Minnesota," said Brian McMahon, executive director of University United, a St. Paul community group that promotes transit-oriented industrial development.
McMahon and others argue that the center could serve as a training hub for workers in desperate need of technical skills at a time when many manufacturers are finding it difficult to find suitably trained workers.
The original idea to build the center emerged in the mid-1990s as Ford and United Auto Workers Local 879 explored ways to grow the business and better prepare employees for the future. The state ponied up $5 million to build the center, the union contributed $2.3 million to furnish and equip the facility, and Ford and the city provided about $1 million to prepare the site.
While Ford closed the sprawling assembly plant because it was outdated, eliminating about 800 local jobs in the process, the 13-year-old training center is remarkably modern by comparison. It features a three-cell robotics bay to simulate automation systems, classrooms, a 180-seat auditorium with teleconferencing capabilities, auto-diagnostic and paint repair bays, and computer and technical training labs.
At least one person has stepped forward with an idea for reusing the center -- Nena Street, CEO of Minneapolis-based Robotics Innovation, who is on the hunt for a site for a public/private partnership called the Global Robotics Innovation Park, or GRIP.
The mixed-use robotics park would include an office and research park, a business incubator, with light industrial, office and laboratory facilities. Street says the project could involve "tens of millions of dollars to $200 million" of investment.
While Street has had some conversations about her project and use of the training center with officials from Ford Land, the real estate arm of the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker, no deal has been struck. In the meantime, she's scouting sites including the defunct Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Arden Hills and the former Delta Air Lines headquarters.
The University of St. Thomas Engineering School may be interested in leasing the training center, not just for students but for the community at large, said Dean Don Weinkauf.
"Leasing is one possibility," he said. "We want to do what we can to make sure that a great engineering and education center is preserved for the community."
But Ford spokeswoman Becky Sanch said the company "doesn't want to be a landlord, we want to either sell it or tear it down."
Sanch and Richard Palmiter, the local real estate broker at CBRE Inc. hired by Ford to market the site, were both mum about the interest expressed so far among developers.
At a community meeting in St. Paul last month, Ford's director of real estate, Jay Gardner, said there have been some inquiries from prospective buyers about the overall site -- which is in one of the Twin Cities' most-desirable neighborhoods.
"I think it has potential," he said. "The economic downturn has had a huge impact on development .... There was interest before the downturn and there's still interest [only less]."
A task force of community members and developers has been meeting since 2007 to guide development options for the site. Several plans have been tentatively mapped out, involving various mixed-use scenarios, but development of the overall site depends on what environmental tests of the soil beneath the plant reveal. Those tests are ongoing.
Gardner said Ford has had some discussions about the training center's future with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), an original partner in the project, but "that didn't go anywhere."
When asked about efforts to save the training center, Ellen Muller, a spokeswoman for the St. Paul Planning and Economic Development Department, said the city doesn't control the property. "The property belongs to Ford. It's up to the private market or MnSCU to propose something to Ford that makes sense."
MnSCU spokeswoman Melinda Voss said the university system has no plans to further use the training center.
Ford has notified the state, which owns the training center, that it was severing its 25-year lease. It will pay a $1.9 million penalty for doing so, said Wayne Waslaski, of the Minnesota Department of Administration. The money will go into the state's general fund.
Ford's Gardner also revealed at the community meeting that it would cost about $700,000 to separate the training center's utilities from the main assembly plant. Demolition is expected to begin any day at the site, beginning with the paint shop. Once the wrecking claw moves on the main assembly plant in the next year, the power will be severed from the training center, cutting off all of its power.
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752