A Death on the West Side: The Long, Slow Demise of the Delphi Plant

The Delphi plant now sits empty, leaving a once-robust community to struggle with more bad news. Hope, however, has yet to be extinguished.

Suzanne Goldsmith
Columbus Monthly
The west-side factory, which was owned by GM for more than 50 years before it spun Delphi out on its own in 1999, operated under several names.

This story is from the April 2008 issue of Columbus Monthly.

The parking lot in front of the empty Delphi factory on the far west side is still in fairly good condition. But behind the plant, a little distance from the building, sections of broken, crumbling pavement are fenced off—unused for years. Still farther out are large areas of former parking surface strewn with debris. Giant shrubs sprout from gaping cracks, as if the lot were reverting to nature.

There's a story written in that sea of asphalt near Georgesville Road, one that parallels the history of heavy manufacturing in Columbus—and much of the nation—during the last half of the 20th century. It's a tale of postwar optimism, growth and production followed by decline, decay and abandonment.

At least 70 years ago, the land now occupied by the once bustling Delphi plant was farmland-a remote outpost seven miles west and a world away from downtown Columbus. By the mid 1940s, the open space had been paved and the parking lots were filled with cars-General Motors autos, mainly, as the factory was owned by GM for more than five decades. For 30 years or so, between 3,900 and 5,200 workers streamed into the factory each day. And each day, a few dozen freight cars and a fleet of trucks chugged away from the plant filled with door latches, seat springs and other parts destined for car assembly plants around the country.

The General Motors location—together with the now redeveloped White Westinghouse refrigerator factory—played a critical role in launching new residential and commercial development on the west side. The jobs these factories brought provided good wages, benefits and stability, and they spawned solid working-class neighborhoods, such as Lincoln Village, Holly Hills and the western portion of the Hilltop.

Those days are long gone, though. When Delphi finally shuttered its Columbus plant last Dec. 21, the end came quietly. Those who spent their careers working there already had retired, moved on or transferred. The 420 employees who remained were mostly replacement workers who had known their jobs were temporary when they were hired.

Workers walk out to their cars on the last day the factory operated.

The fall of the Delphi factory has bigger repercussions than just its closing. There's another casualty that has yet to be reckoned with: those once strong neighborhoods. As an area leader says about one of those communities, "The Hilltop has always been a blue-collar neighborhood, and it's hard to be a blue-collar neighborhood without a factory."

Broad Street, the center of gravity for much of the west side, runs along the northern edge of the Delphi property. Once a thriving retail strip, the streetscape there now is clotted with "store closing" signs and shuttered buildings. Longtime residents bemoan the departure of most of their favorite outlets. "It used to be a real nice shopping area," says Herschel "Boone" Long, a retired GM worker who lives east of the plant on Wayne Avenue. "But all those stores have quit us."

Westland Mall, with 860,000 square feet of retail space, is largely vacant. Of the original three anchor stores, only Sears remains. JCPenney left first, and when Macy's (formerly a Lazarus store) departed last year, residents saw it as the death knell of the mall. Westland's owners are offering incentives to snag any tenants they can find, marketing the mall as a great place to attract "price-sensitive shoppers" (read "cheaper than Wal-Mart")—but another sea of bare asphalt says that may be a losing battle.

Across Georgesville Road from the closed Delphi plant, a once-bustling apartment complex is like a ghost town. Wingate Villages (formerly Lincoln Park West) is a low-rise development with more than 1,700 apartments on 74 acres. When the complex was new, it was considered a prestigious address. Today, suffering from lingering memories of a devastating 2004 fire that killed 10 people and from a reputation as a crime-filled gang haven, it is 80 percent empty and on the market for $24 million.

"The factory's closing really hurts our image," says Joe Decker, a member of the Greater Hilltop Area Commission. "Nobody wants their neighborhood to be a string of check-cashing stores and fast-food restaurants."

Jeff Ferrelli, who once worked at Delphi, owns Minnelli's, a pizza parlor on Sullivant Avenue.

For some, the problem is more pressing than one of neighborhood identity; it's a matter of survival. Jeff Ferrelli, who once worked at Delphi, owns Minnelli's, a pizza parlor on Sullivant Avenue that his father started in 1967. Ferrelli cringes at the thought that he and his family may need to consider selling the restaurant. He gets a little misty-eyed talking about the old days, when Minnelli's made daily deliveries to the plant and was the place to be for Ready and West high school kids after football games on Friday nights. Now he competes with a taqueria in a trailer next door for what little local business remains.

"Do we sell that kind of landmark before it's just an empty building that we can't sell?" he muses with a pained look. "I used to say, 'Hey, I'm five minutes from everything.' Now, I'm five minutes from nothing."

General Motors's news that it would build a 910,000-square-foot factory on Georgesville Road in 1945 was greeted by a front-page banner headline in the Columbus Evening Dispatch. Germany had not yet surrendered, but the war in Europe was winding down. The company's announcement brought a wave of excitement and optimism as people began to believe that Columbus, and the nation, would soon get back to business after a punishing war.

As described in a brochure, the plant would be bigger than just another factory: "It is a specific example of how free men, working together in a free economy, can plan-and build-and dream to the end that there will be more and better things for more people. This is the American way-it is our fervent hope that it shall always be so."

The automotive industry was entering a phase of tremendous growth. General Motors had stopped domestic auto production for four years during the war and operations now geared up quickly to meet pent-up demand. The plant produced more than 800 often unseen but nevertheless vital car and truck body parts: door latches and trim, seat springs, window moldings, door window sash channels, rear compartment lid hinges.

Cash Russell started to work at the factory as a supervisor in 1952 after earning an engineering degree at Ohio University. "I was impressed with the plant; I was impressed with the Columbus training program," says Russell. "If you wanted to get into a manufacturing environment, there was no better place to go than GM." After working in various capacities, he became the factory's plant engineer in 1979.

Long came to the plant as an hourly worker in 1953. He was 24 years old and had just completed a stint in the Army. Before that, he had worked at a brick plant near Black Fork, about 100 miles south of Columbus. He'd been making 75 cents an hour, with no benefits. GM offered him $1.59 an hour, in addition to health insurance and paid holidays. "It was quite a bit of money," he says.

Workers packing parts at the Delphi factory

"I started in Department Five, packing seat springs," Long recalls. "The girls would run them through a folder, run them along a conveyer belt, heat treat them and pour wax on them and then, when they were ready, I would pack them in boxes by size."

Long stayed at GM until he retired in 1983. Twenty-five years later he is still grateful for the benefits he earned working there. "My wife and I are always at the doctor's office and when we hand them the plastic, we don't have to worry. It makes a world of difference. General Motors has really done right by us."

Ferrelli did not envision a career with GM. An OSU graduate with a degree in marketing in the late 1970s, he considered going to work at Lazarus, but the $14,000-a-year salary was not enticing. "I'd been cashing checks for GM workers in my dad's [pizza parlor] for years: $375, $400 a week." Men without college degrees, even some without high school diplomas, were making more than he would get in the retail field. He went to work for General Motors as a production supervisor, and he remembers the production floor in the 1980s as a fast-paced environment. "It was feverish," he says. "A lot of people everywhere, a lot of noise." Workers also organized a golf league, a softball team and huge Christmas parties. Like so many others, he met his wife on the plant floor. But Ferrelli quit in 1993 to run the family restaurant. "You got your house, you got your cars, and at some point you say, 'Either I leave now or I'm in it for the duration.' "

Howard French, whose father and grandmother had worked at the plant, was hired at GM as a punch-press operator in 1977. He recalls the frenzy of working in a piecework operation, where employees received extra pay based on their output. "Elbows were flying, trying to get as much as you could done."

"I came right out of high school," says French, who was the United Auto Workers Local 969 shop steward at the plant before retiring last year. "I went out there and applied. I thought college would come later. But then you got a family. . . . I have no regrets. Even without a college degree, it was a good, middle-income lifestyle. The plant did that for a lot of folks."

Russell remembers how remote the plant seemed when he came for a job interview via a train to Columbus. "When they told me to come on out to the plant, I took a city bus to the end of the line. Then I had to walk a mile or two."

Margaret and Cash Russell, with a photo of the plant hanging in their west-side home, were working at the factory in the early 1950s when they met. They've been married for 50 years.

The place was surrounded by fields. In fact, Margaret Phillippi, whom Russell met at GM in his first months on the job and later married, had come to the plant as a secretary straight from her family farm.

"I used to meet the GM workers when they came to the farm to buy eggs," she says. "They would be delayed when they passed our home as my father herded his cattle on the road from the pasture to the barn for milking."

Housing near the plant was scarce and Russell had a hard time finding a place to live, finally renting a room in nearby Westgate. That would soon change. The 1950s saw an explosion of new housing construction. In 1953, the Farm Bureau Insurance Companies (now Nationwide Insurance) broke ground for Lincoln Village, a planned community on 1,170 acres between Georgesville Road and New Rome. Conceived by Farm Bureau president Murray Lincoln, it was to be a "complete modern city," according to a company newsletter, "a community free of planning errors." Planned from the start to include single-family homes, apartments, shopping, industrial space, schools, churches, parks, a library and a fire station, Lincoln Village was unique enough to inspire an NBC documentary in 1954.

Other developments included Georgian Heights and Holly Hills, communities of small single-family homes, many of them purchased by working-class people who did much of the finish work themselves. "You put in sweat equity, and that cut down the price," according to Hilltop historian Lois Neff.

In 1955, the Don Casto-built Great Western Shopping Center on West Broad Street, which would include a Kroger and a JCPenney, attracted national attention and a share of tourist traffic with its "Walk O Wonders," a miniature version of the Grand Canyon, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and other "wonders of the world" in the parking lot.

The west side was experiencing a period of political ascendancy as well. Jack Sensenbrenner, a Circleville native who had lived in the Hilltop since 1927, was elected mayor of Columbus in 1954, a position he held for 14 years. Sensenbrenner's brash, rootsy style set the tone for city politics and his aggressive annexation policy would be a defining factor in Columbus's expansion.

The growth continued through the 1960s and '70s. The massive Lincoln Park West just across Georgesville Road from GM was thought by many to be the largest apartment complex east of the Mississippi; with better-than-average amenities and services, it attracted a mix of blue- and white-collar tenants, many of them employed at GM. "That was a first-class apartment development," says Russell. And in 1969 Westland Mall debuted, with a JCPenney, Sears and Lazarus. (An open-air shopping center, it was enclosed 14 years later.)

Ferrelli remembers the west side as a "nice, typical American" community. "The neighborhoods were nice, the houses were nice, Westland Mall was a big, thriving place. You'd go down there at Christmas time and you had to dodge people right and left."

GM workers didn't just frequent local businesses, they contributed to the community. Long became a deacon in his church shortly after moving to the west side. He and his wife started a youth center there, providing after-school activities and meals. "We used to feed kids every night starting at 4," he says. Later, the youth center got funding from federal grants and the United Way and was able to hire staff, but Long continued to volunteer, often driving a bus for youth outings.

"The money and the benefits that GM pays you allows you to do the things you want to do," he says. "You take the money that you make and you leave it in the neighborhood and everybody benefits."

While the plant remained productive through the 1980s under the ownership of GM, troubles were beginning to emerge-both at the Columbus site and the entire Midwestern auto-parts industry. By the 1990s, the local factory was being operated by the Delphi division of GM and going by the name of Delphi Interior and Lighting Systems. (Through its history, it also operated under different divisions and names, including Inland Fisher Body and Fisher Body-Ternstedt Division.)

As sales declined, Delphi began to close 100 plants around the country; the Columbus site remained open, but shed some of its operations and trimmed its workforce. Meanwhile, Delphi was building factories south of the border and by 1999 it was Mexico's largest private employer. The Columbus location also was competing with newer ones in the U.S., many of which paid significantly lower wages.

That same year, GM, like a frustrated father ejecting a child who has stayed too long under his parents' roof, spun Delphi off on its own. The new ownership struggled to maintain market share when GM bought more and more parts from other suppliers. At the time, the plant on Georgesville Road employed 1,433 workers, down from its peak of 5,200 in 1957.

Things got gradually worse and Delphi filed for bankruptcy in 2005. Then came the news in mid 2007 about the closing of the Columbus factory-followed by the uneventful final days before the gates were locked for good just days before Christmas.

The situation wasn't unique. The new century has seen a precipitous drop in manufacturing jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last October that U.S. employment in manufacturing had dropped below 14 million for the first time since 1950-although the nation's population has doubled since then. Ohio has lost 221,900 manufacturing jobs in just the last seven years, according to JobWatch, a project of two progressive nonprofits, the Economic Policy Institute and Policy Matters Ohio. These same trends are reflected here in Central Ohio, where the Columbus Chamber predicted in January that local manufacturing employment would drop 2.1 percent in 2008.

While decline and abandonment paint a somber picture, there is a glimmer of hope about the west side's future. For one thing, the Hilltop neighborhood-which extends from Highland Avenue to Demorest Avenue, just east of the former Delphi plant-still has economic strength. A study by Boulevard Strategies, commissioned by the Hilltop Business Association last summer with a grant from Columbus City Council, found that while the dense neighborhood has a lower-than-average household income compared to the citywide median ($39,100 to $44,600), it has a combined spending power of $525 million a year in non-automotive retail purchases. The problem is that most residents now make those transactions outside the community.

Although the Boulevard Strategies report says the neighborhood is approaching a tipping point, its authors were clear that point had not yet arrived. They suggested that a marketing campaign focused on local economic strength would convince new businesses-such as coffee shops, mid-priced restaurants and stores selling basic goods-that West Broad is ripe for their consideration.

"There's still some economic vitality," says Columbus City Council president Mike Mentel, a Hilltop native. "We need to focus that, channel it and move it forward. There's stability in these neighborhoods. There's still a lot of home ownership. Since Delphi is now gone, we need to look at bringing in the kinds of jobs that will make the area one that collectively stays vital."

The hulking shells of Delphi, Westland and Wingate Villages may offer an intimidating challenge, but they also could be an opportunity to meet that community's need for new retail businesses and jobs. James Schimmer, director of the economic development and planning department for Franklin County, describes the parcels as having many assets.

The location's proximity to the I-70/270 highway interchange should make it attractive to businesses, with few barriers to the transportation of goods and workers. The industrial zoning status of the Delphi site is increasingly rare, with many other industrial locations having been rezoned for other uses. Schimmer and others point out that no matter how great the decline in manufacturing jobs, that sector must remain part of the city's economic mix. "That Delphi site has the great possibility to become a site for manufacturing redevelopment," says Schimmer. "The workforce in that general area is a workforce that is supportive of light industrial."

Worker training and education will be the key to any plans for job growth on the west side, according to Bill LaFayette, chief economist for the Columbus Chamber. "The common perception is that manufacturing is a sector with no future," he says. "That's simply not true. What you need is better training. Manufacturing workers need greater comfort with technology and a greater ability to adapt as manufacturing processes change."

State Rep. Dan Stewart would like to see the former JCPenney at Westland Mall converted into an academic and job training center, perhaps through a partnership with Columbus State Community College. He points to businesses in the field of renewable energy. "I've got a guy on the west side who makes solar panels but tells me he can't find enough workers who have the training to install them," he says. "If we don't find ways to re-tool our workers, we will wither on the vine."

One force that could become an engine for growth is the influx of immigrants to the neighborhood. But talk to an old-time west sider and you're likely to hear tones of resentment. The neighborhood's diners, pizza parlors and retail shops are being replaced by Mexican food carts and grocery stores-and lately also by Somali businesses. One resident complains about bars on the windows of the Mexican groceries and raises concerns about sanitary conditions at mobile food carts. Another says that Sullivant Avenue has come to look "like Baghdad" due to a combination of decaying streets and curbs and women in traditional Muslim garb.

"If there is any perceived resentment [of the Latino businesses]," says Cathy Mantilla-Falkenberg, president of the board of the Hispanic Chamber of Columbus, a business group with 68 members, "it might be due to the fact that the Hispanic community in Columbus is fairly new. The growth has come in the last 10 years. We haven't gotten to know each other. Hispanic immigrants bring their own culture and business practices-and the language is certainly a barrier."

But she points out that immigrant-owned businesses are contributing energy to the neighborhood. "Latino business owners are entrepreneurial and very hardworking," says Mantilla-Falkenberg.

Latino businesses are starting to open in the area around the former Delphi plant. One entrepreneur is Liborio Alcauter, who owns the Mexican supermarket La Michoacana on Sullivant Avenue.

Liborio Alcauter is one such entrepreneur. A Mexican native who migrated to the United States 22 years ago, Alcauter now owns a string of Mexican supermarkets, five around Columbus and one in Dayton. He opened his west-side store, La Michoacana on Sullivant Avenue, in 2003.

He says that while his Sullivant Avenue store does well (despite the fact it has suffered several robberies), the jewel in his crown is the 16,000-square-foot Mega Michoacana on Morse Road, which he opened two years ago. Those who hope to create some new retail excitement on the west side might do well to take a look at Alcauter's Morse Road store and some of its neighbors. The 2003 closure of Northland Mall led to high retail vacancies along the corridor, followed by an influx of Latino- and Somali-owned businesses. The Global Mall-in a former T.J. Maxx store, and not far from Alcauter's Mega Michoacana-now has 28 tenants, most of them small businesses owned by African immigrants.

Similar opportunities might exist, points out Mantilla-Falkenberg, along Broad Street or inside Westland Mall. She gently suggests that the west side could benefit from embracing this new population of Latino immigrants, whom she says are younger than the population at large and, while they often start out with little, possess great upward mobility.

And she adds it is "a workforce that is committed to working hard and achieving the American dream."

Her words sound familiar-perhaps because they could have been used to describe a different kind of migrants to Columbus decades ago, people who came from rural towns around Ohio to seek work at a factory that had risen from a cornfield.