Senator to face quiz on GM

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Disappointment, confidence and even some hope were the reactions among elected leaders as well as past and present General Motors employees speaking about GM's decision against using its Spring Hill plant for production of a compact car.

Meanwhile, Marshall County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett was asked if he thought GM's decision would become a topic for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander's "community roundtable" here today in the County Courthouse Annex on Lewisburg's public square.

"I imagine it will come up," Liggett said in his understated reply about the senator's appearance from 1:45 p.m. to 2:45 this afternoon.

"All of us are disappointed" with GM's decision, Liggett said. "County officials and employees - we've invested time and money" in an attempt to persuade GM to build more cars in Spring Hill. Liggett also noted GM employees moved to this part of Tennessee because of GM. "We all feel a little betrayed."

A statistical analysis of where Middle Tennesseans work shows that Marshall County has the third largest number of residents working within a one-mile radius of the GM plant in Spring Hill. It's assumed that most of those commuters work at GM. Maury County has the highest number of commuters working there. Williamson is the county with the second highest number of commuters working at or near the GM plant.

Friday, Sen. Alexander issued a statement regarding General Motors and its factory in Spring Hill.

"If this opportunity does not fit the Spring Hill plant, another one will," Alexander said. "Tennessee has too many advantages for Spring Hill to remain idle for long - a central location, hundreds of suppliers, low costs, a superior four-lane highway system, a right-to-work law, and good workers."

Meanwhile, a Chapel Hill resident working at the Spring Hill plant says he's pleased to still be working at the factory.

Furthermore, Fran Volpe says plant downtime scheduled for the week of Aug. 10 was cancelled.

"We haven't been shut down," Volpe said. "The manufacturing section is back in."

"I'm hoping we'll get something else," said Volpe who works in the stamping part of the recently re-tooled factory. "I find it hard to believe it'll just sit there."

The Spring Hill assembly line has what Volpe called a "flex body shop." It can handle the assembly of vehicles with various kinds of bodies.

Volpe says a four-cylinder engine used to power the Chevrolet Cobalt is being produced in Spring Hill.

Asked if a hybrid or electric car might be made there, Volpe said, "I don't know, but they put a lot of money in the plant. It still may" produce an alternative fuel vehicle engine.

While some people maintain optimistic views, Maury County has requested federal help for workers at the soon-to-be idled assembly plant. That would seem to lead to a suspension of operations at the Spring Hill plant in November. The county is also in the process of applying for a federal emergency grant that will go to prepare the local career center for more customers.

Jan McKeel, director of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance, said they are also planning to open a satellite career center on GM property.

McKeel and Maury County Mayor Jim Bailey were key organizers of, and speakers at, a special summit of area officials gathered to take steps that might have persuaded GM to select Spring Hill for the compact car's production instead of the winner, Orion, Mich., or Janesville, Wis. A spokeswoman for Bailey's office said on Monday that another meeting will be held, but one had yet to be scheduled.

In May, 12 percent of Maury County residents were unemployed, a number that economic development officials say could exceed 20 percent.

Tennessee's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for May 2009 was released last month at 10.7 percent, 0.8 percentage points higher than the April rate of 9.9 percent. The national unemployment rate for the month of May was 9.4 percent.

Of the 12,770 people in Marshall County's workforce, 2,010 were unemployed in May. That 15.7 percent unemployment rate is up from the 14.5 percent rate in April. In May 2008, the rate was 8.4 percent.

The higher unemployment rate here has been attributed to slowdowns and closures of other plants in different industries but some support auto manufacturing.

Officials in Tennessee now hope that the Spring Hill plant will be assigned a new product before it is mothballed.

On the northeast side of Marshall County, a retired GM employee remains hopeful for his former employer.

"I'm disappointed, but by the same token," retired team leader Jim Nicodemus

said, "I know GM's rank and file is smart enough to know that the Spring Hill plant is among the newest plants."

"It would be foolish on their part to let a plant of that magnitude sit idle," Nicodemus said. "They've dropped so much money into it in previous years... They could throw it away as a tax write off, but the technology is there."

Nicodemus scans reports on the Internet and likes one report saying "Spring Hill is slated for a new product. Orion may get small car, but Spring Hill will get variety of products."

With GM's spending cuts, Nicodemus has lost his dental and eye care insurance, and says, "The eye care wasn't top notch, but it was something," and he's now got dental insurance through his wife's employer's policy.

"Nothing was lost of value to me," he said. "Tuition assistance was taken, but I never took advantage of it before. My pension and health care are intact. I feel very fortunate in comparison to some."

Nicodemus lives on Palmetto Road between Wheel and Farmington. He worked for GM for more than 30 years and moved here from Columbus, Ohio.

"I look for GM to come back and be as good a company as they were once before," Nicodemus said. "The economy has hurt everybody, but GM will spring back."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.