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The people and paper trails that led to the Free Press’ Packard Plant package


A screenshot from the Detroit Free Press' special report on the Packard Plant.

The Detroit Free Press published a massive package Sunday on the Packard Plant, a former car plant that’s become a dangerous eyesore for the city.

Reporter Jennifer Dixon and videographer Brian Kaufman spent three years (interspersed with other projects) reporting and photographing the site. Their Sunday package shows past and present images of the plant, and covers the plant from multiple angles including demolition costs, firefighting efforts and costs and a profile of the last tenant. As the main bar says, the goal now is to get rid it. Jennifer writes:

“Packard’s 40-plus rotting buildings – the biggest blighted property in the city – are strewn with mounds of wet clothes, thousands of shoes, hundreds of tires and assorted charred cars and boats scribbled with graffiti. Trees grow from the plant’s roofs. Standing water — sometimes neon-colored from chemicals — pools on its floors.

Now, more than 50 years after the Packard Motor Car Co. abandoned the property, city and county officials say they will try to wrest control of it from its current owner, Bioresource.”

The descriptive writing shows the plant isn’t a great place to be. Jennifer says she donned her hiking boots, shed her jewelry, and carried only a phone, notebook, pen and ID. And she never went alone.

As this year’s Barlett & Steele Awards winners noted, stepping in and out of a project is challenging. Jennifer says when she decided this was the year to get the story done, she spent days organizing notes and records – and she had lots of them.

She shared a list of interviews she’d compiled at one point. She had at least 12 categories such as former employees, area residents and researchers. She’d even contacted the producers of the “Transformers” film that was taped there.

“You have to think who deals with the building and what kind of records do they have,” she says. Follow the “people trail and the paper trail.”

Milwaukee has a similar eyesore called Tower Automotive (See my past post on a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story). So I know many of you also can relate.

The paper trail is long. It covers federal and state court lawsuits, tax and property records and historical documents, Jennifer says. It also includes reports from state regulators, environmental agencies, and code enforcers. To see who owns a property, check old state corporation records to find officers, Jennifer says.

No more stories are planned, however, the paper is working on a documentary about the project, she says.

If you want to learn more, check out a live chat with Jennifer and Brian at noon EST Dec. 4 at Freep.com.  Or just watch the powerful video created by Brian Kaufman.

In Featured, Investigation, Manufacturing | Large companies, Real estate | Econ development.

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