Tom Walsh: Wayne County pitches new energy park to Asian firms

Wayne County officials traveling to Asia with Gov. Rick Snyder this week are pitching a newly assembled, 1,000-acre site in Plymouth and Northville townships to battery suppliers and other energy-related firms in Japan, South Korea and China.

The proposed advanced technology park straddling 5 Mile Road west of Beck, just north of the M-14 freeway, includes the vacated Robert Scott Correctional Facility, a women’s prison closed by the state in 2009, and has more than 20 development-ready parcels of 10-60 acres each, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano told the Free Press.

Les Alexander, general manager of A123 government relations, with facilities and 1,000 employees in Livonia and Romulus, is accompanying Ficano and Snyder’s group this week to help pitch the vision of creating a cluster of high-tech battery makers and suppliers in western Wayne County.

“There’s a lot of emphasis this trip on battery development and energy,” said Ficano, who is making his seventh visit to China while also joining Snyder and Michigan Economic Development Corp. officials for stops in Japan and South Korea.

The property around the former prison has presented a development quandary in recent years.

On one hand, it’s a prime commercial location, with a rail line and a number of technology-related firms nearby, including Johnson Controls, SoulBrain, Freudenberg-NOK, ChangAn Automotive and Metaldyne — plus a retail stretch along Beck Road that includes a Home Depot, bank branches and restaurants.

It remains a challenge in a weak economy, though, to tackle redevelopment of a former prison.

In recent months, Wayne County, the MEDC and officials of Plymouth and Northville townships agreed on a development and branding strategy for the site — and the Snyder-led mission to Asia seemed like a timely opportunity to roll it out.

Ficano will meet with officials of lithium-ion electrolyte producer SoulBrain’s parent, Korean chemicals firm TechnoSemiChem; Japanese auto suppliers Aisin and Yazaki, and several Chinese firms on the trip.

Kuninori Matsuda, consul general of Japan in Detroit, who will introduce Snyder today before the governor speaks to the Midwest U.S.-Japan Association, said the cultivation of manufacturers such as Aisin and Yazaki that already have operations in Michigan fits right in with Snyder’s approach of so-called economic gardening, or helping to grow the presence of existing job creators.

There are already 476 Japanese facilities in Michigan with nearly 32,000 employees, and “I don’t see too many new companies coming,” Matsuda told me last week. But he said the recent earthquake and tsunami have made many Japanese firms consider expanding operations abroad to help diversify their supply chains.

Ficano said he’s not partial; he will be pushing for both the expansion of existing businesses as well as the attraction of new employers.

One interesting aspect of the Snyder-led trip to Asia will be seeing how well the local economic development officials going along — from Wayne and Oakland counties, Saginaw, Midland and Battle Creek — play together. They may all be promoting Michigan, but each town or county inevitably competes with its neighbors for jobs and investments.

Wayne County’s new energy park vision, for example, may be wooing the kind of clean-energy firms that were initially courted — with disappointing results so far — to redevelop the abandoned Ford Wixom auto assembly plant in Oakland County.

Ficano’s deputy, Azzam Elder, sees the new Plymouth-Northville concept as something different, a fresh clustering of cutting-edge companies. “Our vision is not to market an old building for reuse,” he said. “It will no longer be about lease rates and incentives.”

But, of course, if anyone inquires about those things, there will presumably be something in the state or local goody bags to help coax a deal.

Contact Tom Walsh: 313-223-4430 or

A previous version of this column misstated the name of the the A123 official on the Asia trade mission. This version is correct.

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