A sprawling six-story building on the southern edge of downtown South Bend appears to be abandoned, for decades standing as an unpleasant reminder of the thousands of jobs lost when Studebaker Corp. abruptly shut down its assembly line.
Soon, the 92-year-old structure could come back to life with business of a non-automotive type.
Entrepreneur Kevin Smith, backed by South Bend city officials, wants to turn the 950,000-square-foot building and a pair of adjacent two-story buildings into a place for high-technology businesses, manufacturing, offices, condominiums, stores and restaurants.
"This used to be the hubbub of town and the heart of the community. The community has to recognize it can be the heart of the community once again," he said.
A $4.3 million project paid by the city to rid the buildings of asbestos, PCBs and lead paint was completed in September, and Smith is in the process of applying for work permits, although some work already has begun.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the renovation symbolizes what South Bend has been through since Studebaker closed in 1963, leaving 25,000 unemployed.
"This is a structure that has almost haunted our community for decades because you can't miss it. It looms over the ballpark and the downtown and the lights haven't been on for a very long time," he said. "Having the lights back on would be extremely powerful symbol of the future and everything we have going on here."
Smith said he could have constructed a new building, but thought it would be better if he refurbished the assembly plant, known as the Ivy Tower because of the vines that once covered its facade.
"It's more than a building, it's an icon," he said. "There were easier solutions, but it wouldn't have been better solutions."
This isn't his first time restoring old buildings: He bought the old Union Station train depot across the tracks from the assembly plant more than 30 years ago and turned it into a center that houses more than two dozen telecommunication providers and a data center containing thousands of servers.
Union Station has no more office space and its data center space is about 90 percent full, which is why Smith wants to expand. About 150,000 square feet in the new buildings will be for his Union Station Technology Center business, using the heat created by computers to warm the buildings. Smith expects nine other businesses he owns to move in, and Purdue Polytechnic South Bend is interested in the space, too. It has about 200 students who attend class on the Indiana University South Bend campus and is looking for industrial space for labs.
Smith said he doesn't know how long the renovation will take, saying he will do it one step at a time.
The estimated cost to renovate the Ivy Tower is $102 million, which would include $20 million in state public funds, $20 million in local public funds and $62 million in private funding. Building 112 is expected to cost $30 million and Building 113 is expected to cost $13.9 million.
The city has promised $3.5 million to help with the improvement and has submitted a proposal to help pay for the work to the state's Regional Cities Initiative, which is scheduled to award two $42 million grants in December.
Buttigieg said he likes the idea of smaller businesses filling the void left by Studebaker.
"I would rather have 20,000 people, having them work 200 at a time at 100 successful companies than have them all in one giant firm that you could lose," he said. "So it's not about replacing Studebaker. It's about a future that is true to the dynamics of the century we're living in."