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Officials hold out hope for historic plant dormant since 2009

March 24, 2015

A half-mile long and more than a million square feet in size, the onetime jewel in Muncie's manufacturing crown is tarnished these days.

Empty since 2009, BorgWarner Automotive is a fading landmark along Kilgore Avenue. Most of its many windows are intact and its water tower still stands tall. But rust creeps along its metal surfaces and the chain link fence where, in 1960, United Auto Workers union members jostled each other to meet presidential candidate John F. Kennedy.

Muncie's once-mighty BorgWarner plant—workplace for more than 5,000 men and women in the 1950s, when the name on the gate was Warner Gear—waits for some re-use or, perhaps, removal.

Among Muncie's industrial greats of the past, BorgWarner is unique in that it quietly lingers in place. Local Chevrolet and Delco plants were razed years ago and the Westinghouse plant on Cowan Road is now in reuse by Progress Rail Services.

The BorgWarner plant almost saw renewed purpose in recent weeks, but the possibility faded when a sale fell through.

So the plant sits and waits.

A consolidation of other Warner Gear plants, the Kilgore Avenue behemoth was a vital workplace for most of the 20th century. The plant's contracts for auto parts became fewer in number over the decades, however, and by the time Michigan-based BorgWarner announced that the plant would close in 2009, only hundreds still worked there.

The last time many people got a glimpse inside the plant was in June 2009, after the closing, when an auction of the plant's tools, brooms, fans and three-wheeled trikes was held.

Shortly after the plant closed, the community felt renewed hope when the property was purchased by Ohio businessman William Marsteller, who had a history of buying former industrial properties with hopes of putting them to some new use.

And almost since that moment in 2009, there have been rumors that a new industrial user would take over the 125-acre property and revitalize it.

In particular, green energy proposals—one in wind energy, one in a supposedly "revolutionary" motor vehicle fuel operation—were rumored but never materialized. Meanwhile, the trend in new manufacturing facilities is for buildings a fraction of BorgWarner's size.

Local real estate agent and developer Mike Lunsford, who has been Marsteller's point man on the BorgWarner plant since 2009, told The Star Press of Muncie recently that the property almost had a new owner a few weeks ago.

"It was supposed to have sold in early February and the guy backed out," Lunsford said, adding that he didn't know the nature of the business the potential buyer had planned for the plant.

"It was an odd deal," Lunsford said. "I never met the guy. He worked through a consultant. He said he was going to redevelop it."

Lunsford said the potential buyer had financing in place and was working through a "reputable" law firm.

"Whatever happened to his plans, he didn't elaborate."

It was, Lunsford said, "the best possibility we've had" since 2009.

Mayor Dennis Tyler, who has kept tabs on BorgWarner possibilities since taking office in January 2012, said a potential re-user of the plant would be "really significant."

"That (State Road 32) corridor between Yorktown and the city (of Muncie), is prime for redevelopment, particularly if you're talking about hundreds of jobs," Tyler said. "I'm disappointed, but that doesn't mean there might not be something sometime."

So, the plant where so many autoworkers earned the pay that fed their families and bought the new cars in their driveways remains in the realm of possibilities.

The asking price on the property was recently $2.2 million, Lunsford said. That's since been reduced to $1.9 million.

"Borg is for sale for a buck-seventy-five per square foot," Lunsford said. "All over the state, old industrial stuff is getting used up. People are leasing it or buying it and using it. I'd like to see that.

"It'll take somebody creative to figure out a new use."

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