By Lawrence Cosentino

New film on Lansing's drive to keep GM revs up the spin

In the late 1990s, greater Lansing faced what many regarded as an existential threat: GM’s decision to pull out of Lansing after the demise of Oldsmobile. It was time for a team of rivals to unite in the face of doom. From “The Seven Samurai” to “The Avengers,” that makes for a rousing movie plot, but reality is usually messier.

“This Model Works,” the movie version of this story — sanctioned by the old samurai himself, former Lansing Mayor David Hollister — is headed to a library, school, and perhaps even a PBS station near you by the end of the year.

By almost any measure, the story has a happy ending. Lansing ended up with two new GM plants, the Grand River Assembly and Delta Township Assembly plants, both of which weathered GM’s subsequent bankruptcy and a national recession and produced last year’s Car of the Year, the Cadillac ATS. Next year, the new Camaro will be made at a Lansing plant, as will “Transformers 4.”

But will the story’s messier parts, including a bitter fight over air emissions from GM on the west side and the ugliest round of “environment vs. jobs” hysteria in the city’s history, make the cut? And what, exactly, is under the Lansing model’s hood?

The film won’t be done until the end of the year, but viewers can get the gist of it by checking out the trailer at ThisModelWorks.com or simply by scanning the roster of co-producers: Hollister; Ray Tadgerson, former CEO of the C2AE design firm and project director for the blue ribbon committee charged with keeping GM in Lansing; and Terry Terry, president of MessageMakers.

The plot is straight out of “Armageddon,” with a corporate pullout replacing a killer meteor. Putting aside their differences, Lansing Township and the city of Lansing joined with 40 other governmental units to woo GM back. Republican Gov. John Engler and Hollister, a Democrat, put their shoulders on the same wheel.

“We were all on the same wavelength, other than a few sniping at the fringe,” Hollister said in an interview last week.

Hollister hopes the film will be taught in schools and shown around the world as a model of cooperative problem solving. If Sunday’s advance story in the Lansing State Journal is any indication, “This Model Works” is already flexing high-RPM spin power.

The Journal story didn’t mention the generous swath of “fringe” on Lansing’s west side, where a bitter fight over toxic pollution from the now-defunct Verlinden plant and GM’s Craft Centre came to a head in April 2002.

Fed up with odor issues and health problems that plagued the neighborhood for decades, residents considered appealing an emissions permit the state issued to GM unless the automaker agreed to install pollution controls at its Verlinden plant, parts of which were more than 100 years old.

The knock-down drag-out spilled across Lansing. On May 25, City Pulse ran a cover depicting GM shaking hands with the administration while hiding a buzzer in its palm. Incensed, Hollister ordered city employees not to talk to the Pulse on any story, not just the GM story.

City Councilman Howard Jones accused GM of corporate banditry. Frustrated by GM’s threats to leave and requests for tax abatements, Councilman Rick Lilly said Lansing would be better off diversifying its economy, especially in the growing tech sector, and become a “wine and cheese” community, like Ann Arbor. The voters booted him out of office.

Ron Callen, a retired Michigan Public Service Commission engineer, was in the thick of the fight.

“I hope there will be some recognition [in the film] that there were complications,” Callen said. “But to characterize it as threatening the viability of GM in Lansing, or sniping at the edges — I don’t agree with either of those.”

Callen advised westside neighborhood groups in the fight over GM emissions from the 1970s through the early 2000s. He met with GM reps, the DEQ and City Council members many times over the issue. Callen said the emissions problem didn’t go away until the Verlinden plant was shut down in 2006.

“It was never our intent to have the plant shut down, but that’s the way some people wanted to characterize it,” he said. “We wanted to solve the air quality problems.”

On April 25, 2002, the Lansing State Journal published a “resolution” signed by 45 area leaders, including Engler, Hollister and U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, and an editorial: “Environmentalists shouldn’t appeal pollution pact.”

At the bottom of the proclamation ran the following notice: “This space provided in the community interest by the Lansing State Journal.”

“Whether or not a facility complies with the Clean Air Act is in the community interest,” Michigan Environmental Council’s policy director, James Clift, responded to City Pulse at the time. Clift led the westside negotiating team to a settlement with GM under which increases in emissions at GM’s Craft Centre would be offset by decreased emissions from the Verlinden Plant.

Clift had a guarded response to the rollout of “This Model Works.”

“There are good parts to the [Keep GM] model, but I’m still looking to see what the community engagement aspect was,” Clift said. “I lived in it for a while, so I had firsthand experience.”

What is the “Lansing model” the film will hold up to the world? “Enlightened leadership,” Hollister said, was the key component. Teamwork was another. A positive attitude didn’t hurt. The Keep GM team put a binder together — “about 2 inches thick,” Tadgerson said — with “everything good” about Lansing.

But it’s unlikely that Hollister’s team walked into GM’s executive offices offering “leadership” and “teamwork.” Ray Tadgerson, Hollister’s point man for the Keep GM effort and the co-producer of “This Model Works,” wrote in an email Monday to City Pulse that he didn’t have any figures on the tax abatements and labor concessions that must have had something to do with the story’s happy ending. Instead, Tadgerson cited a number in Sunday’s Journal story, $174 million in local and state tax credits, “that they must have gotten from the archives.”

The talking heads of “This Model Works” don’t seem to blame GM for threatening to yank its century-old roots out of the community any more than Bruce Willis blamed the hunk of hurtling space rock in “Armageddon.”

After 90 minutes of lessons in teamwork and leadership, some viewers might be in the mood for a second feature.

The mayor of a proud Midwestern town knocks on a corporate CEO’s door, hefting a thick, Hollister-style binder listing the town’s assets. Clean up your widget factory’s pollution, the mayor says, treat labor fairly, make safer and less harmful products — internalize the external costs you impose on the community — or get out of town. Moved to panic, mindful of their roots in the community and responsibility to it, all levels of management unite and vow to do “whatever it takes” to persuade the town it should stay, from paying more taxes to cleaning up the air. Years later, the principals make a movie about the episode and take it around the world to other big corporations as a model of good corporate citizenship.

Look for that movie in the fantasy section