By Jon Hurdle
The humble brick won’t be much to look at but for Mark Watkins, but it’s a poignant reminder of the place where his brother, father, great-uncle and himself all spent a good part of their working lives.
Watkins, who worked for 32 years at the old General Motors plant at Boxwood Road near Newport, is one of hundreds of former workers and local residents who have committed to buying single bricks now being generated in massive quantities by the ongoing demolition of the plant.
When the site’s developer, Harvey Hanna & Associates, said the bricks would be available for a small charge for anyone who wanted them, many Boxwood Road workers jumped at the chance to literally buy a piece of the plant that for 62 years played a huge role in the economy of northern Delaware.
The bricks are being priced at $5 each, or $10 for those carrying a plaque commemorating the 8,739,023 vehicles that were made at the plant between its opening in 1947 and closure in 2009.
The proceeds will go to a food pantry program run by the Delaware Kids Fund at nearby Richey Elementary School, where 65 percent of students live at or below the federal poverty line, according to Tom Hanna, president of Harvey Hanna Associates.
Demand for the bricks was strong in the first few days after Harvey Hanna announced the program on Feb. 8. The company’s head of marketing, Ryan Kennedy, said he had sold about 200 bricks within two days of the announcement, and was getting requests for bricks from as far away as Detroit. Sales have raised almost $2,000 so far. “It’s pretty fascinating how it’s spreading organically,” he said.
The brick buyers are happy to be supporting the cause, and are moved by the prospect of owning a fragment of the 3 million square-foot plant where they turned out models like the Pontiac Solstice, made lifelong friends, and earned the money that allowed them to raise their families and send their kids to college.
“The plant was part of my entire life,” said Watkins, 59, now a supply manager for a local school district. “My father raised me with the living that he made at that plant and then I in turn was able to raise my children because of what my income was from that plant, purchase my house and go on vacations.
“When you are there for 32 years, it’s more than just a place where you get up and go to work in the morning,” he said. “You got family there.”
Watkins, who believes he and his brother were among the few third-generation employees at the plant, said he plans to buy two of the commemorative bricks, one for himself, and one to put in the grave of his father, who worked there for 33 years.He said he’s sad to see the massive backhoes now tearing off chunks of the old assembly plant where he and up to 6,000 others spent so much of their working lives, but is glad to know that the building is due to be replaced by a logistics center that will once again provide jobs for local people.
“It’s mixed emotions,” Watkins said. “Obviously, I’m sad to see the old girl gone but at the same time, I’m glad to see that something is going to go there that will create jobs. They won’t be the same high-paying jobs that were there when I was there but they are jobs nonetheless.”
Developer Tom Hanna, whose own father, uncle and grandfather worked at the plant, said he expects to sell between 1,000 and 2,000 bricks, signifying the importance of the plant to several generations of Delawareans.
“This plant was such an economic engine for northern Delaware in its day,” Hanna said. “But equally important, it represented such a sense of pride for those families that had so many generations of experiences in and around the plant. It represented U.S. manufacturing when manufacturing really meant something.”
The brick program was conceived by Kennedy, who started getting requests from workers and neighbors for some commemorative piece of the plant when they saw that demolition was underway.
Kennedy, who is also the executive director of Delaware Kids Fund —which provides food, clothing, shelter and services to children in need —figured that the developer could boost its existing support for the food pantry by selling bricks, Hanna said. The firm is now taking orders on a dedicated website https://harveyhanna.com/gm-commemorative-brick-program/ for the bricks, which are expected to be delivered to customers in the spring.
Stan Kaminski, who worked at the plant for 35 years until he retired at its closure in 2009, said he plans to buy two bricks —one for himself, and one for anyone else who might miss out on the offer. He’s also planning to take 20 bricks to this year’s meeting of a national club for workers who built the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky models, which were among the vehicles produced at Boxwood Road.
“After spending 30-plus years in the building, I would just like to have a piece of the place that provided for me,” said Kaminski, 69. “To have a physical part of that is satisfying.”