Fremont's back on its feet. Or at least up on one knee.
After being sucker-punched first by the recession and then by the closure this year of the NUMMI plant with its nearly 5,000 autoworker jobs, the Bay Area's fourth largest city is suddenly coming to — buoyed by this week's news that electric-car maker Tesla will move into the plant.
"This is like Christmas in May," said Saki Kavouniaris, whose steak house and cocktail lounge on Warm Springs Boulevard had seen business slump 30 percent since NUMMI shut down April 1. "When the dot-com died, we lost a lot of manufacturers, and Fremont's had a lot of ups and downs ever since. I was starting to think this place must be jinxed. But the future looks a lot brighter now than it did two months ago."
Tesla announced Thursday that it was teaming up with Toyota to start making its $50,000 electric Model S at NUMMI, hiring 1,000 workers and possibly creating ten times that number of jobs down the road. The news brought hope to Fremont, a 92-square-mile piece of Silicon Valley.
"In a great big hurry, our fortunes have changed," said Bob Wasserman, now in his second term as Fremont's mayor. "We're thrilled to see something good happening with that property. It'll employ a lot of the folks who just lost their jobs, but it'll also be a catalyst to bring other businesses to the area.
"This is a great day for Fremont, the beginning of a new industry and a new chapter in our history," Wasserman said. "Now we can become the electric-car capital of the United States."
Having survived some hard times, Fremont suddenly seems to be on a roll again.
Despite an 8.4-percent unemployment rate, empty business parks, half-deserted shopping malls and a $1.8 million budget gap, folks in this part of Alameda County are starting to ask themselves: With Tesla coming to town, joining burgeoning solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra and other alternative-energy firms, could Fremont become a clean-tech incubator, just as South San Francisco has adopted the mantle of the "Birthplace of Biotechnology."?
Nina Moore, with the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, thinks so. "Clearly, it's a goal of ours to be a hub of clean- and green-tech, and Tesla and Solyndra are two big players in that arena."
As if on cue, the White House announced last week that President Obama on Wednesday will visit Solyndra, The company received a federal $535 million loan guarantee for construction of a manufacturing plant, a massive structure now rising beside Interstate 880. That project, according to the White House, employs more than 1,000 workers, making it one of the most successful Recovery Act investments in terms of spurring job creation.
There's more. By 2014, BART's Warm Springs Extension is scheduled to bring mass-transit into the heart of the city, close to NUMMI and a nearby section of town that Moore said has been designated as a "priority development area." Even with the Tesla-Toyota announcement, Councilmember Anu Natarajan said Saturday that the city will continue to use its $333,000 federal grant to study other potential uses for NUMMI and the adjacent land.
"I think Fremont's turning a corner from being an auto-oriented suburban community to the center of everything green," said Natarajan, who is also an urban planner. "With the new BART station and Solyndra and the electric-car plant, we're becoming a cluster of green tech. And the president's visit this week shows that we're on their radar."
Some doubts left
There's even lingering hope among some residents that the Oakland A's will move to Fremont, where owner Lew Wolff had once hoped to finance a stadium by surrounding it with a "ballpark village" of housing units. Friday, though, Wolff reiterated that the city wasn't viable for the project, saying the housing meltdown had killed that plan. "We need to be in an established downtown," said Wolff, who is still targeting a move to San Jose if Major League Baseball gives the green light. Fremont, meanwhile, continues to work with baseball officials.
Even with the promise by Tesla and its green counterparts to hire thousands of workers in the next few years, many Fremont residents interviewed Saturday said they didn't think their city would be shaking off its recessionary chains any time soon.
"Tesla's reopening NUMMI is great news, but NUMMI can't save everyone," said Evangeline Carreon, whose Warm Springs flower-and-gift shop sits in a lonely strip mall that has seen one business after another go under. "I worry what kind of world my two kids in college will face when they get out."
Then again, said Judy Miller of Fremont's Cheese Taster Delicatessen, "NUMMI reopening will give us all a shot in the arm. Besides, with business last year so horrendous, if we could make it through 2009, we can make it through anything."
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689.