Kettering University, which gave General Motors Co. leaders such as Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra, is getting a $4 million gift from the carmaker to build an automotive proving ground and powertrain test lab.
GM’s philanthropy arm plans to announce the donation Tuesday to the Flint, Michigan, school, which the automaker once owned. The facilities, to be built in the next two to three years, will be used by students and professors researching topics such as electric cars and autonomous vehicles.
The project is part of Kettering’s efforts to fight blight in Flint, which became an automotive powerhouse after GM was founded there more than a century ago. The decline of the U.S. auto industry has devastated the city, where 41.5 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to U.S. Census data from 2009 to 2013.
“Hopefully, this will be a real driver of economic activity in Flint and the university,” said Robert McMahan, the university’s president. McMahan, a physics professor, has also worked in the private sector, including at In-Q-Tel, a venture-capital firm funded by the CIA.
Kettering wants to create a safe corridor for its 2,000 students to reach downtown Flint, about a mile (1.6 kilometers) away. The school is the area’s largest landowner and recently acquired and renovated the city’s Atwood Stadium, even though Kettering has no football team. City officials also plan to redevelop 60 acres (24 hectares) nearby, which had been the site of a Chevrolet plant, into a park bordering the Flint River.
Kettering until the 1980s was owned by GM and was formerly known as the General Motors Institute. GM currently sponsors 65 Kettering students, who rotate between periods working at the company and their studies, most of which lead to degrees in engineering or business.
The automaker employs about 2,200 Kettering graduates, including Barra, who earned an electrical engineering degree in 1985. Other GM executives from the school include Chief Financial Officer Chuck Stevens, manufacturing head James DeLuca and Grace Lieblein, the vice president in charge of global quality. Another alumna, Diana Tremblay, GM’s vice president for global business services, is vice chairman of the university’s board of trustees.
“Flint has always been a very important city to us,” said Vivian Pickard, president of the General Motors Foundation, the company’s philanthropy arm, which is contributing half of the money while the carmaker supplies the rest.
GM moved its headquarters to Detroit in the 1920s, though Flint remained a center of auto production. A sitdown strike at GM plants there that began in 1936 ultimately resulted in the company recognizing the United Auto Workers union, said Marick Masters, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit who studies labor relations.
In Flint’s heyday in the 1960s, the city had a population of 200,000, about twice the current level, as workers flocked there to build cars.
The population -- and its well-paid union jobs -- dwindled as U.S. automakers began to lose market share in the 1980s and plants were shuttered. From 62,000 private-sector union members in 1986, the city has fewer than 10,000 now, Masters said. GM has just 45,000 UAW members now, compared with 450,000 in 1979, he said.
“What happened in Flint is a parallel to what happened in Detroit,” Masters said.
GM employs about 7,200 people in the Flint area and has no plans to expand that, said Tom Wickham, a company spokesman.
While programs such as the one GM is sponsoring at Kettering may help bring state-of-the-art technology to the region, it’s unlikely to bring back a large number of jobs.
“It’s important to remember that the base you’re starting from is so depressed that it’s going to take a long time to work out of it,” Masters said.