For its efforts in galvanizing the community to save a critical piece of history, the Yankee Air Museum won the MLive Media Group Deal of the Year Award, in the Nonprofit category.
The Yankee Air Museum, and its efforts to save a portion of the historic Willow Run Bomber Plant, were honored at the year's 10th annual Ann Arbor News and MLive Media Group's Deals of the Year ceremony on Nov. 7, 2014.
This event annually honors the most impactful individuals and companies throughout the region's business community.
This year's event, attended by more than 450 people, was held at the Ann Arbor Marriott Ypsilanti at Eagle Crest, and included many of the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area's top executives and nonprofit leaders.
Galvanizing the Community to Save a Piece of History
The Yankee Air Museum launched its "Save the Bomber Plant" campaign in May of 2013, with the goal of raising the millions necessary to save a 144,000 square feet section of the former WWII era B-24 bomber factory from demolition, and preserve it as the Museum's new home.
Against all odds, in a race against time characterized by several deadline extensions, and with the nation watching via extensive media coverage, the Yankee Air Museum finally announced Oct. 30, 2014 that sufficient funds had been raised, in monetary donations, pledged donations, and in-kind donations, and it has officially purchased a portion of the former Willow Run Bomber Plant, and hopes to have it in move-in ready condition by early 2018.
A Community Touchstone, and an Important Role in Our Nation's History
"When they said they were going to tear [the plant] down, we were devastated as a community," said Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo.
"So to have it come back home and to actually preserve a section of it is a dream come true for us."
The plant is deeply woven into the fabric of the community. After the end of WWII, the plant was retooled to build cars, rototillers and cargo aircraft under Kaiser-Frazer. In 1953, General Motors took over the facility to build transmissions, renaming it GM Hydramatic, and later Willow Run Powertrain. When General Motors abandoned the Willow Run Powertrain Plant in December 2010 as part of its bankruptcy proceedings, the future was uncertain for the historic factory that had once employed 42,000 people and turned out more than 8,600 B-24 “Liberator” 4-engine bombers.
The Revitalizing Automotive Communities Environmental Response (RACER) Trust took over the plant and placed it on the market in 2011. With no buyers coming forward, it became apparent that the industrial property was more salable without the building. With demolition looming, Dennis Norton, president of the Michigan Aerospace Foundation and Founder of the Yankee Air Museum, thought that a part of it might be spared as a new home for the Museum, which had outgrown its current facility nearby.
An (Almost) Impossible Dream
RACER Trust Administrative Trustee Elliott Laws admitted he didn't initially think museum supporters would be able to pull off the effort to secure the amount of money that was needed. He said it was the efforts of Norton that convinced him it would be wise to save a portion of the plant for historical purposes.
"Dennis was like a gnat, he just wouldn't go away," Laws joked. "Eventually he convinced us that this was something that made sense. We started looking at the history of this plant and we realized this wasn't just something that made sense, it was something that we had to do."
The campaign to save the Willow Run Bomber Plant highlighted the many “Rosie the Riveters” who worked there during World War II, including Rose Will Monroe of newsreel fame, whom many consider to be the original Rosie. Volunteer Rosie re-enactors marched in local parades and hosted fundraising events, and elderly WWII era Rosies from Willow Run and other area wartime factories came out to support the cause.
In a widely publicized event at Willow Run in March of 2014, the Museum set a Guinness World Record for The Most People Dressed as Rosie the Riveter — with 778 women and girls, including 19 elderly "original Rosies," showing up in costume to be counted.
Building on Initial Success, the Campaign Continues
Now that Yankee officially owns the plant, there is still much work to be done to make it a museum, and the fundraising continues. The millions pledged to date are earmarked for replacing one entire wall, and part of another, that were destroyed with the rest of the building, and reinstating all utility services, which also were a necessary casualty of the demolition process.
After the structural integrity of the building is restored, funds will still be needed to renovate and outfit the interior, build parking, outdoor seating and other exterior improvements, build the new and expanded exhibits, and move the Museum from the current facility into the new one.
Fundraising will continue at the campaign's website, www.savethebomberplant.org.