County worried about GM's fate

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Reacting to General Motors' placement of its Spring Hill plant on standby and make it compete for production of a new car, Lewisburg and Marshall County leaders were sad but cautiously optimistic; effectively saying that country boys will survive.

"We've all worked very hard to see that plant stay open," County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said of GM's announcement that it's closing nine more plants but will shut down production in Spring Hill. "I hope they take into consideration the location of that plant and the modernization of it."

Chevy Traverse production is being sent to Lansing, Mich.

Meanwhile, Lewisburg Industrial Development Director Terry Wallace is awaiting word from the state Labor Department on how many Marshall County residents work at the GM plant and its several suppliers. Maury County economic officials estimate nearly 5,000 jobs are tied to the plant, the Columbia Daily Herald reported Monday.

With the Spring Hill plant on standby, workers and United Auto Workers officials held out hope it could still have a future building vehicles. One of the GM plant workers, Michelle Burley, has a suggestion for young car buyers: "Buy American and protect American jobs."

GM says it will shed over 21,000 jobs nationally with this latest move. A halt of production in November at Spring Hill will take 2,447 employees.

"Any time you have a place that provides jobs... it will not only affect utility bills and grocery bills, it will have an effect..." Lewisburg Gas Department spokesman Craig Blackwell said. "Hopefully there will be some future with some of these other businesses moving in here from other states.

"We'll have to take the bad with the good," Blackwell said.

Wallace relayed information from his Maury County colleagues who seem to fear unemployment could hit 35 percent in November.

That's also when Sanford's pencil factory here is to be completely closed, taking more than 300 jobs from Lewisburg, a city that's still working to recover from closure of ICP, the successor name for the old Heil Quaker air conditioning and heating plant.

Marshall County residents lost 890 of the 2,200 jobs at ICP's plant earlier this decade, indicating most of the workers lived elsewhere, Wallace said. Many of them may have lived near the county line, he said. The same may be true of GM employees.

Monday, Lewisburg's Industrial Development Board heard Wallace report steps being taken to attract new industries. He introduced Ebonee Watkins who's moving here from Phoenix, Ariz., to help lead Autom Church Supply's call center in the city's Business Park. Its supervisor, Aaron Popp is coming from Phoenix in June, Watkins said. Seven or eight more operators will be hired and one should be bi-lingual.

Of GM's announcement, Lewisburg Mayor Barbara Woods said, "I hate it from our own personal standpoint with the economy. It's got to affect us, but the community is strong and it will pull together."

Councilman Ronald McRady, a former state finance officer, said, "It's good that they're just shutting down production. Of course it concerns me with the low unemployment rate (19 percent) here," but McRady added, "hopefully," Spring Hill is where GM's new hybrid car will be made.

Former Mayor Bob Phillips had been "afraid" of pending GM announcements, but, "They're going to lose money big time" if the Spring Hill plant is sold. Another concern: "Think about the housing market there" in Maury County, Phillips said.

UAW's Todd Horton, editor of Local 1853's newspaper, said GM told workers it doesn't know how long production would be idle. Resumption depends on market conditions.

Spring Hill will compete against a plant in Orion, Mich., and GM's Janesville, Wis., plant which closed in April, for the right to build a new subcompact car GM considers key to its survival.

"They said this is one where we need to build these cars well and inexpensively," Gov. Phil Bredesen said. "Our ability to do that is what's going to drive this... We will be extremely competitive... It is a modern plant... a very flexible plant... A good part of the issue is being able to build them inexpensively and competitively, and we've got all the tools to do that."

Union officials at Spring Hill expressed measured optimism.

"This is not as bad as it could be," said Mike Herron, chairman of UAW Local 1853's bargaining committee. "I'm an optimist. We would have preferred the Traverse continue to be built here. The absolute worst would be a plant closure."

GM's announcement of plant closures and Spring Hill's standby status came with the car company's filing for protection from creditors.

"It will be important for GM to emerge from ... [bankruptcy] quickly, then restructure progressively to continue," said Mike Wiles, executive director of the Marshall County Economic and Community Development Board.

"This greatly affects our local auto suppliers and auto industry," Wiles said. "We need to continue to be supportive of each other on a local level... and work through this together."

Tuesday, GM took a key step toward downsizing, striking a tentative deal to sell Hummer and revealing that it has potential buyers for its Saturn and Saab brands.

GM wants to keep its money-losing Saturn dealership network, contracting with the new buyer to make some of its cars while the buyer gets other vehicles from different manufacturers.

GM hopes to follow the lead of Chrysler by transforming its most profitable assets into a new company in just 30 days and emerging from bankruptcy protection soon after.

But GM is much larger and complex than its rival and isn't up against Chrysler tight June 15 deadline with Fiat.