Thirty-five years after his death, automotive pioneer and philanthropist C.S. Mott is about to deliver another gift to his hometown of Flint, this one from the taxpayers of South Florida.
If a Mott venture, U.S. Sugar Corp. in Clewiston, is acquired by Florida for $1.75-billion, a handful of Flint charities holding nearly half of U.S. Sugar's stock will reap a windfall. Clewiston's loss will become Flint's gain — to the tune of more than $300-million.
But in a community synonymous with urban decay since Michael Moore skewered it on the big screen, it's debatable whether Mott's money will make any difference.
The foundations that will benefit have Midwestern-modest plans. Gardens will be planted on the sites of demolished department stores and homes. Poor youngsters will get their teeth fixed. After-school programs will be bankrolled, teaching everything from etiquette to African drums, trying to save Flint one kid at a time.
Sobered by past efforts, few Flintoids, as residents call themselves, think philanthropy will replace industry as a job engine. But where they once looked to General Motors for salvation, the people of Flint are finally looking to one another for answers. They urge the people of Clewiston and other communities facing shrinking tax rolls, rising unemployment and falling home values to do the same.
Kathi Horton, head of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which has about 100,000 shares of U.S. Sugar, said the town is trying to recapture the entrepreneurial spirit of legends like C.S. Mott.
"Our future will be what we make of it,'' she said. "But first you've got to quit looking over your shoulder."
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Three decades of bloodletting at GM have decimated Flint's population and workforce. Miles of empty auto factories mark the town's periphery, and the vast wasteland that was once the Chevy plant stretches like a scar in sight of downtown. Boarded-up homes and shuttered schools litter the town's core.
Bypassed by national retailers, Flint's residents patronize establishments like the Starlite Diner and Paul's Pipe Shop, which look like something out of the 1950s and '60s, because they are.
While the rest of the nation was getting rich with technology and then real estate, Flint was on a steady spiral down. Now that bad times have spread to the rest of the country, Flint is still light years ahead in the misery marathon.
Its population is 40 percent of what it was 40 years ago. More than half its kids live in poverty. About one in five homes is unoccupied. Unemployment is nearly twice the national rate.
Dayne Walling, a Flint native and former Rhodes scholar who narrowly lost a bid for mayor last year, said the city has exhausted any remnants of wealth. "Now we're losing our tax base at the rate of 5 to 10 percent a year," he said. "The cushion is gone."
While Flint has been stripped to the bone, four of its best-known charities soon will be rolling in the dough, thanks to Florida's plan to buy U.S. Sugar as part of the Everglades restoration.
Mott Children's Health Center, with the largest number of shares, could receive about $150-million, a 50 percent boost in its total assets. The C.S. Mott Foundation will get nearly $125-million. The Community Foundation's stake is worth about $35-million. Ruth Mott Foundation, named after C.S.'s fourth wife, could net about $10-million.
Flintoids are so used to being kicked in the teeth that they have a hard time believing they're getting a multimillion-dollar payoff from anywhere, much less the sugar fields of Florida. They're also wary about dancing on Clewiston's grave.
"We've seen what happens when industry leaves an area,'' said Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, who runs Mott Children's Health Center, which owns 22 percent of U.S. Sugar's stock. "There has to be a painful acceptance that things will not be the way they were."
Art Reyes, a second-generation GM worker and president of UAW Local 651, is uneasy about the U.S. Sugar money, calling it "slightly tainted."
"Though we appreciate the influx of cash, we know what it's like to have someone benefit from our loss," said Reyes, whose union at the former Delphi plant numbers fewer than 1,000, down from a high of 13,000. "This money will be used to the utmost benefit in respect of the price the workers in Clewiston have paid."
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Steve Wilson remembers hanging out the windows of the Durant Hotel on Flint's main drag in 1958 watching Dinah Shore lead General Motors' 50th anniversary parade. His grandfather was a test driver for Buick. Wilson's first car was a burgundy '66 Chevy.
Thanks to strong unions and booming car sales, Flint's nearly 90,000 auto workers had one of America's highest per capita incomes. "Flint was the Silicon Valley of that era,'' said Wilson, now 56 and director of the Ruth Mott Foundation.
C.S. Mott, who parlayed a bicycle wheel business into a multimillion-dollar stake in GM, was Flint's three-time mayor and a lifelong booster. Mott bought U.S. Sugar in 1931, but oversaw the Everglades operation from an art deco building fit for Superman in downtown Flint.
A quirky skinflint who wouldn't tip a waiter but might pay his college tuition, Mott started the C.S. Mott Foundation in 1928. He funded the Children's Health Center, with free medical and dental care to all kids, regardless of race, in 1938. With the good times rolling in the 1950s, the foundation provided initial funding for a community college built on acreage from Mott's estate, as well as a cultural center with museums and auditoriums.
Mott died in 1973, just as rising gas prices and growing auto imports started to erode GM's business. But his foundation and the Mott Children's Health Center continued to pump money into the community.
Under the leadership of William S. White, who married C.S.' granddaughter, the Mott Foundation led several multimillion- dollar attempts at downtown revival. (White has also been chairman of U.S. Sugar's board for 20 years.)
In the 1980s, Flint placed its bets on becoming a tourist and convention destination with a downtown Hyatt Regency, a festival marketplace and Auto World, an indoor theme park. Auto World folded within six months, the Hyatt changed ownership more often than its sheets, and the marketplace hemorrhaged tenants.
Steve Wilson was director of Flint's Convention and Tourist Bureau during those tumultuous years. His belief in the town's potential was lampooned by Michael Moore in Roger & Me, the 1989 documentary that chronicled the role of GM and its chief executive, Roger Smith, in Flint's demise.
"We were patterning ourselves after Boston and Baltimore,'' Wilson said, referring to two cities that had rebounded as tourist attractions with downtown marketplaces. "We wanted to hear that we could be like them. But I remember a local shoeshine guy saying, 'You think people from Flint are going to buy Gucci sunglasses?' "
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Leaders emerging from the wreckage of Flint are now thinking small. Fix up a few downtown buildings. Put lofts on the top floor, entrepreneurs in the middle, retail on the street. So far there are enough urban pioneers to fill the lofts and offices. But street-level storefronts, shiny and hopeful, are mostly vacant.
Third-generation Flintoid Gary Hurand made a comfortable living developing retail parcels in the suburbs. Now, with $6-million of his own in cash or personal guarantees riding on Flint's downtown recovery and the shops still empty, he's on edge.
"When I was a kid, I used to believe that in all the second floors downtown there were these trust departments that would take care of us,'' said Hurand, who is 61. "Now those folks are dead, and their kids are in Colorado. But we're resilient as hell."
Times researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996.
Who gets what?
If Florida's $1.75-billion acquisition of U.S. Sugar goes through as planned, the company's shares will be liquidated at an estimated $350 a share. Here are the major shareholders and the percent of shares owned:
U.S. Sugar employees, Clewiston: about 35 percent
Mott Children's Health Center, Flint: 22 percent
C.S. Mott Foundation, Flint: 19 percent
Community Foundation of Greater Flint: 5 percent
Ruth Mott Foundation, Flint: 1.5 percent
Mott White family: 4 percent
Source: Court documents, IRS filings