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Kai Ryssdal: We’ll get the March sales figures from Detroit tomorrow morning. Just about everybody is betting on a long-awaited bounce in those numbers. The past couple of years have been especially rough on Detroit, but the fact is that the American car industry and their suppliers have been cutting back for more than 20 years.
Dozens of plants have been shut down. Some of the machinery is salvaged for use elsewhere. The rest is sold off or just scrapped. And the buildings are usually demolished. But not always, as Marketplace’s Alisa Roth reports now from Delaware.
ALISA ROTH: The inside of this Chrysler plant is like an industrial Pompeii. The people are gone. But everything else is still here: the conveyor snakes its way over the old assembly lines. The battery charging stations stand, cables at the ready. Even the formica tables look like they’re waiting for lunch break.
VIC COSTA: This is where the cars came off. They were good down. This was the water test area, where they checked for leaks…
Vic Costa works for the University of Delaware, which bought the plant from Chrysler for about $25 million. Costa’s job is to get the place ready for its new owners.
COSTA: The train would come in on this side…
More than 2,000 people used to work here. Costa says you could fit 22 football stadiums into the building. In fact, it’s so big, Costa gets around it in a golf cart.
The first thing he has to do is get rid of all the equipment Chrysler left behind. Chrysler did take some of it when it left. But most of it’s just sitting there. The university can’t use it, so it’s holding a yard sale.
Ross Ettin is one of the auctioneers. He specializes in the auto industry. Every time a car company shuts a plant, liquidators like him are called in to sell off what’s left.
ROSS ETTIN: From soup to nuts. It’s, you know, from anything from a cart all the way to the big machinery. Everything that’s in a plant.
Five hundred people showed up to this auction on campus. More than 300 other people watched online. There were buyers from places like Canada and Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
ETTIN: A lot of the major type of manufacturing equipment in a lot of these plants are somewhat antiquated, so most of it won’t stay in the U.S. It’s going to go to more of an emerging economy. A lot of stuff is going overseas, India, China.
Ettin says old equipment like this is cheaper than it was a few years ago. Because all the factories shutting down have created a glut in the market. But buyers are also more cautious than they were.
ETTIN: People are not buying for stock any more. Back in the day, if it was a good deal, they would buy it.
The single most expensive piece was a press brake. That’s a machine that bends metal that sold for $42,000. Most of the stuff was smaller. Things like drawers and cabinets and baskets of handtools.
Marcus Mullin spent $34,000 on machines like lathes and drill presses. He’s an equipment dealer in New Jersey.
MARCUS MULLIN: We bring it in, we clean it up, repair it, test it, whatever we gotta do. Then we turn around and sell it as usable machinery. You know, I mean, I have customers from the homeowner working on hobbies or inventions to Fortune 500 companies.
A few weeks later, the plant is almost empty. The only things that are left are parts of the assembly line, which will probably get sold for scrap or recycled.
A lot of people see this as a tragic end for one of the last assembly plants on the East Coast. A symbol of everything that’s wrong with the American economy.
And it is true: There aren’t many happy endings for old auto plants. Most of the plants that have closed in the last 30 years have been demolished. Or simply abandoned.
POWERHOUSE MIKE: And all the noise and all the nice quality trucks that we rolled off the line and…
Powerhouse Mike spent 32 years working at the Chrysler plant in Newark. More than half his life. He says it’s sad to see the place so cold and quiet.
POWERHOUSE MIKE: Every day you come in, you look around, and you just can’t believe that it’s shut down.
But he also knows Newark is one of the lucky ones.
POWERHOUSE MIKE: There’s some good opportunities for the university, for the state of Delaware, and maybe for the area, you know to put some people to work. We’re looking forward to seeing that happen.
The University has big plans for the site, which is about half a mile from its main campus. If all goes as planned, in a few years, it’ll be filled with faculty offices and classrooms.
In Newark, Del., I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.
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