Ex-city manager refects on auto plant’s beginnings – Bloomington Pantagraph

Posted: Sunday, November 29, 2015

NORMAL — Dave Anderson is long retired as city manager of Normal, but more than 30 years ago he led a negotiating team of area government officials that helped to bring what was then Diamond-Star Motors Corp. to Bloomington-Normal.

It was quite a ride.

On a routine day in the summer of 1984, Anderson took a call from then-Normal Mayor Richard Godfrey. The wheels were in motion, Godfrey said, for a potential $500 million auto plant in Illinois, but staff had to act fast if Normal had a shot at it.

A proposal would be considered, but it was due in 24 hours.

“It was hasty,” Anderson said. “But the thing we had going for us was that the staff had already done a lot of the legwork for something like this ahead of time.

“We already had a good idea of what we could do. We even had aerial photographs of the potential site,” he said. “But it was chaos trying to put it all together so quickly.

“We would like to say that we had a lot of good luck with that. The truth is, what we had was good planning ahead of time.”

The proposal consisted of information about the town-owned site, known as Hayden Park. Included was infrastructure information, photos, maps and soil information.

Everything was packaged together and sent to then-State Rep. Dan Rutherford, a Republican from Pontiac.

“We sent it by bus,” Anderson said. “At that time, it was the fastest way.”

Knowing that landing an auto assembly plant is seldom successful, staff members figured they’d never hear about the project again.

But a few weeks later, requests started coming in for more detailed information. Word began leaking that the joint project was to be the first for Chrysler Corp. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and the only site in Illinois that officials were considering was the land in Normal.

Before long, then-Bloomington Mayor Rich Buchanan, McLean County Board Chairwoman Nancy Froelich, now deceased, and Chamber of Commerce executives were meeting to develop a plan for the venture.

Much of the early negotiations were withheld from the public, including the media, because Japanese automakers had been known to pull out of other communities when speculation and rumors became public.

More than a year later, on Oct. 7, 1985, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca announced the joint venture for a $680 million, 2.1 million-square-foot-facility in Normal.

The Diamond-Star name was dropped after Mitsubishi took sole ownership in 1991, eventually naming it Mitsubishi Motors North America.

Iacocca’s announcement culminated six years of negotiations that began when then-Gov. Jim Thompson traveled to Japan on a trade mission. Illinois beat out several states to land the plant, but doing so required a controversial incentive package that totaled nearly $274 million.

Thirty years later, Anderson is understandably sad the plant is closing.

“I feel bad for the people that work there,” he said. “A lot of people have put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that place. I know that the officials in Japan are disappointed to see it close, but I guess they weren’t making the profit they needed. I just feel very sad.”

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