Saturn's end seen as blow for county

Friday, October 2, 2009

General Motors' announcement Wednesday that its Saturn brand will be discontinued was seen as another blow to Marshall County residents who've produced those cars and parts for them.

Still, there were signs of hope among philosophical comments from Lewisburg and Marshall County leaders who on Thursday morning reflected on the disintegration of a deal with Penske Automotive Group.

"The impact of it won't be as great now as when they made the cars in Spring Hill," County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said, noting GM's decision will cost some 13,000 people their jobs, although not all are in Tennessee.

"That's not good.

"Will it slow the process of getting a car to be made in Spring Hill?" Liggett asked rhetorically, "I don't know."

Penske -- citing concerns on whether it could continue to supply vehicles after a manufacturing contract with GM ran out -- ended talks with GM Wednesday to acquire the brand.

A press release from GM CEO Fritz Henderson said Saturn and its dealership network will be phased out.

"This is very disappointing news and comes after months of hard work by hundreds of dedicated employees and Saturn retailers who tried to make the new Saturn a reality," Henderson said. Penske has explained its "decision was not based on interactions with GM or Saturn retailers."

Penske's decision was put into perspective by Terry Wallace, Lewisburg's director of industrial development.

Penske "was trying to shop the brand to another manufacturer," Wallace said. "That's what caused it to break down.

"Our hope was that ... he would buy the plant and still produce them there," said Wallace, a former county executive here."

Penske said that an agreement -- with another manufacturer to continue production of Saturn cars after GM stopped making them -- fell through, so Penske ended talks with GM.

An agreement o the manufacture of the Saturn brand had been reached with executives of another auto company, but that company's board of directors rejected the agreement, according to Penske officials who declined to name the other company.

"Without that agreement, the company has determined that the risks and uncertainties related to the availability of future products prohibit the company from moving forward with this transaction," Penske officials said.

In June, GM agreed to produce the vehicles for a limited period of time. Penske was to take over the Saturn brand and related dealerships.

Reflecting on GM transferring manufacture of Saturn elsewhere, Wallace said, "With them moving the model up there, it's just another disappointment. I think every one... thought Penske would manufacture them there (in Spring Hill.) Everybody's losing.

"I guess they're scrapping that whole brand," he said. "I guess it's like when Ford dropped Edsel."

Meanwhile, Wallace was on Thursday awaiting the arrival that morning of an industrial prospect.

"We're still in the running for a couple (of industries) and I've got one coming in here today." he said. "We're still plod along... This guy is coming in for information so he can make a report to his board."

Mike Wiles, executive director of the local Joint Economic and Community Development Board said this latest development surrounding GM's plant in nearby Spring Hill "is going to have a big effect" on Marshall County's economy.

The retooled plant "should be used for something... but ... I don't think it's a total surprise. Knowing that could happen, we should work harder to recruit people to our county to make things better."

National media anticipated that GM would announce the completion of Saturn's sale to Penske in the coming days.

While there's been no report on how many Marshall County residents work at or have worked at the GM plant in Maury County, a state Workforce Development officials has provided a statistical analysis indicating that after Maury and Williamson, the county with the greatest number of residents working at the GM plant is Marshall County.