Detroit — Cash-strapped General Motors Corp. and its dealers have plenty of problems of their own these days, but that didn't stop them from helping to build five houses for needy families in this distressed city.
“In these difficult times, this commitment is more important than ever,” Saturn dealer Carl Galeana says at the dedication of the first house to be finished. “This community needs us and we need each other.
“Obviously it is not a great time for the auto industry, but it's not the time to pull back; it's the time to reach out.”
Five months ago, GM, 10 Saturn dealers and their staffs — and even some customers — joined with Habitat for Humanity and others to begin building the 2-story homes on the east side.
They are in an area that is being transformed with new affordable housing for low-income residents. The houses replace dilapidated structures, similar to several that still exist nearby.
“This block was scary this summer, but look at it now,” Galeana tells Ward's, pointing to the Habitat houses and several others like it built through similar projects. “Before, there were pit bulls tied to poles outside decaying homes and people living in houses that looked abandoned.
“This city will come back. You can't give up on a community when times are tough. That's what this is all about.”
GM and Saturn dealers not only provided funding for the houses, they also helped in the actual construction, under the guidance of Habitat for Humanity builders.
“We had managers, sales people, office staff and customers out here swinging hammers, some for the first time,” says Michigan dealer Pat Moran, owner of Saturn of Fort Gratiot in Port Huron and Moran Chevrolet in Clinton Township.
“It is typical of Saturn to help like this,” says Roderick Gillum, GM's vice president-corporate responsibility and diversity. “It's the legacy of the brand to get involved.”
Saturn is assisting in building 15 similar homes in Philadelphia and three in Colorado. All the projects are in conjunction with rock star Jon Bon Jovi's Soul Charitable Foundation.
“Without Saturn and its retailers stepping up in these dark times, we would not be here giving light to five homeowners,” says the foundation's Mimi Box.
Sherrell English and her two daughters will move into the completed house. Habitat offers long-term, no-interest mortgages to the homeowners, who themselves must provide 650 hours of “sweat equity” helping in home-building projects.
“It makes you feel so good when you are giving to others like that,” English says. “I've made some new friends and it's inspired me to do more.”
Helping construct her home is Tom Harrison. A customer of Saturn of Clarkston (MI), he learned about the project from the dealership.
He says GM's generosity towards such worthy causes is particularly striking in light of the lack of humanity shown the day before by some Washington lawmakers who opposed a federal bridge loan to troubled domestic auto makers, their own houses in danger of collapsing.
“I'd like to bring that (Sen. Richard) Shelby guy up here and show him what the Detroit auto industry does for those in need,” Harrison, standing in the living room of the new house, tells Ward's. “Bring him right to this house.”
Moran wouldn't want to be part of that visit.
“I don't want him or any of those other senators in my state,” he says. “What I'd have to say to them is unprintable.”
Auto sales may be way off this year, but they haven't disappeared, Moran notes. “Business is not that bad. Customers come in every day. They buy every day.
“Our problem is perception,” he says. “The customers that come in say, ‘I'm surprised to see other buyers here; I thought I'd be the only one.’”