Though General Electric is gone, John Phillips remains.
In 1988, Phillips first stepped through the doors of 301 N. Curry Pike as a hopeful 20-something. Work at GE was work you could retire from, so he spent the next three decades learning every inch of the plant’s nearly 1 million square feet. He graduated from his spot on the assembly line to lay hands on the life support systems that kept the manufacturing powerhouse humming. Tending to the GE Appliances plant became his life’s work, and it was good work with good people.
When Phillips now walks through the plant doors in his new role as the steward of a property that’s been gouged and left hollow, he’s lost. The landmarks are gone and everything is covered in a thick layer of dust.
“There was stuff taken out that had grown roots over time,” Phillips said. “It was there forever.”
In the late 1950s, the Franklin Manufacturing Division of Studebaker Corp. built its facilities just west of Bloomington. By 1967, General Electric had taken over the building to manufacture the first of more than 20 million refrigerators. Phillips, now 51, was there during GE’s golden age in 1999, when the plant employed more than 3,200 workers. He also bore witness to the plant’s uncertain fate in the years that followed.
After a series of layoffs, reduced shifts and near closures, the GE Appliances plant shut down its assembly line for the last time on Aug. 26, 2016. Phillips was there the day workers cut away parts of the building in order to remove the machinery, including some that had been running since the Franklin Manufacturing days.
“They tore that place to pieces,” Phillips said. “That was hard to watch. There was no pride in the way they were taking stuff out.”
With the plant closed that summer, Phillips wasn’t sure what he would do next. It looked like his time at GE had come to an end until Harrell-Fish Inc., the company contracted to maintain the building’s baseline infrastructure, offered him the chance to continue his work. In his new job as a commercial HVAC technician, he would be responsible for keeping the former GE plant heated so the pipes wouldn’t freeze.
There were, after all, new property owners.
In November 2017, Cook Group purchased the 70-acre plant for $6.5 million. The Bloomington-based medical device manufacturing company is working to merge the property with an adjacent 30-acre parcel to act as an expansion of Cook’s nearby headquarters.