GM Looks to Refinance Ren Center to Generate Extra Cash Flow

GM Renaissance Center

What is the value of a landmark? Is it a statement, or perhaps a symbol? For GM, it could be a source of cash, as the struggling automaker has begun exploring the idea of selling its world headquarters at the Renaissance Center in Detroit and leasing floor space there from the new owner if the company can't refinance the building.

GM originally bought the Renaissance Center in 1996 for $75 million, then borrowed $500 million against it to remodel it. GM was leasing the center until May of this year, when the company paid $626 million to take full ownership. Since then, the company has been looking to refinance it. According to The Detroit News, GM's latest strategy is to appeal to one or both of Detroit's pension funds for a $500 million loan to refinance. GM will meet with representatives of the Police and Fire Retirement System on Thursday and is still trying to schedule a meeting with the retirement fund that handles the city's general employees.

Jim Blanchard, GM's executive director of worldwide real estate, said in an interview with The Detroit News that GM has no intention of vacating the building altogether. "We are committed to the city. We have no plans to move."

According to Blanchard, if the refinancing plan falls through, GM will consider selling the center. However, if a sale were to happen, GM would structure the deal so it could lease the building and keep its headquarters there.

"We think it is a great investment opportunity for both pension funds," Blanchard said. "It's almost fully occupied. It's a very visible iconic property, which generates a lot of cash flow. From our position, it's a safe investment."

Investing in local real estate would not be a new venture for the funds. Both have invested millions in local redevelopment projects, such as the recently re-opened Westin Book Cadillac Detroit Hotel and the Double Tree Guest Suites Fort Shelby Hotel. The Police and Fire fund has $4.5 billion in assets, while the general employees fund has $3.9 billion in assets. Not all of their investments have succeeded, though. The funds may be out $30 million in loans they gave to Alabama lawyer David Watkins to buy the now-bankrupt TradeWinds air-freight company. Members of the funds are souring on the idea of investing in struggling or failing companies now, especially in light of the current economy.

"We're not going to do it because we don't have that kind of money," said George Orzech, police and fire pension board member. "There's no interest that I know of, but stranger things have happened."

Blanchard insisted that the talks are preliminary and that no decision has been made. He said that GM is just exploring all of its options while the company tries to raise $5 billion in cash as part of its $15 billion restructuring plan.

The Renaissance Center is a group of seven interconnected towers on the Detroit waterfront. Besides being GM's world headquarters, it also houses a movie theater, a hotel and several restaurants.