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Facing uncertainty, Without a new product, opinions differ on fate of Spring Hill plant

Facing uncertainty

 

 
 

 

Without a new product, opinions differ on fate of Spring Hill plant

By SKYLER SWISHER and CHRIS GRAHAM/Staff Writers

Union leaders and elected officials say they are optimistic about the future of the Spring Hill plant, but some auto analysts are declaring the corporation’s decision to build a new small car in Michigan as the worst-case scenario for Tennessee.

Union leaders and some elected officials said Friday they are optimistic General Motors will not turn its back on one of its most modern plants.

Workers at the Spring Hill assembly plant received official word Friday that a new small car the corporation plans to build would be manufactured in Orion Township, Mich., ending a high-stakes bidding war between three states. A plant in Janesville, Wis., was also vying for the product.

“It’s a disappointing day, but we know the future is bright,” said State Rep. Ty Cobb, D-Columbia.

Union officials said they are already gearing up efforts to secure a new GM product once the economy recovers.

In a press conference at the union hall in Spring Hill, Maury County Mayor Jim Bailey voiced some of the harshest criticism of the automaker’s decision. He said the corporation’s decision was “not based on sound, economic principles, which would clearly have brought this product to Spring Hill.”

“General Motors has made two incredibly, irresponsible business decisions in the last month that mimic the same mentality that stopped and then dismantled the Columbia Dam a couple of decades ago,” he said.

   
 

A decision reviled by many Maury County residents, the Tennessee Valley Authority almost completed a dam during the 1970s only to tear it down because of concerns about an endangered species of mussel.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

In a conference call with reporters Friday, Troy Clarke, president of GM North America, said the plants in Spring Hill and Janesville, Wis., will remain on standby status for an unknown amount of time.

Clarke said all three states made “very attractive offers,” but that Michigan’s was the most creative.

 
 

“We really had the option to choose between three offers,” he said, adding that it was a “thorough and exhaustive evaluation.”

Gov. Phil Bredesen issued a statement Friday expressing disappointment when Clarke told him GM had not selected Spring Hill for small car production.

“While I was obviously disappointed at the news, I was encouraged that he (Clarke) confirmed that the company views the plant in Spring Hill as a very good facility that is likely to be an important part of GM’s manufacturing strategy in the years ahead,” Bredesen said in a press release.

Clarke said the Spring Hill plant could reopen if vehicle sales rebound, though nothing is certain.

“By and large, it depends on how fast the market grows and in what segments,” he said. “If the market grows fastest in a segment that can use the Spring Hill technology then probably it’s nose will be in the lead. We all hope the market recovers quickly and that we have a need for additional capacity.”

Some UAW members have pointed the blame to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker’s stance on providing bailout money to ailing automakers with certain conditions as a reason GM would not pick the Spring Hill plant.

Clarke dismissed those allegations.

He said the plants were judged on 12 criteria, including the cost necessary to bring the plant to a level of environmental leadership and support and state incentives, though he declined to list the others.

Clarke said Corker’s viewpoint had nothing to do with the decision and that GM officials were not influenced by outside forces, including President Barack Obama’s automotive task force.

“I can assure you … that was not a factor that entered into it,” he said.

However, experts said the giant automaker had other motives.

Dennis Virag, president of Toledo, Ohio-based The Automotive Consulting Group, Inc., said he believed Spring Hill would have been the best choice for the small car, but “politics got in the way.”

“Given the state of Michigan, I think a lot of pressure came to bear on General Motors,” he said. “And with Jennifer Granholm being what I would call ‘in tight’ with the Obama administration — I think she put pressure on Obama, on the administration and automotive task force and that helped influence the decision.”

The Associated Press reported Michigan has lost nearly half its manufacturing jobs — or more than 450,000 positions — since they hit a peak in mid-2000. At least half a million workers already are collecting unemployment benefits in the state.

Now that Spring Hill has failed to land the small car, Virag said the plant’s short term viability is very “questionable,” with car sales not expected to rebound until 2011 or 2012.

“It’s not a good day for Spring Hill,” he said.

Kim Hill, associate director of research for Ann Arbor, Mich.,-based Center for Automotive Research, said the future of the plant is murky at best.

“They’re kind of in limbo,” Hill said of the Spring Hill auto facility. “They’re going to be keeping the heat and light bulbs on without knowing anything. That doesn’t sound like much of a future.”

There has been speculation that GM may shop the plant to another interested car company, but both experts don’t see the automaker parting with the facility.

Hill said being on standby status is almost worse than closure.

“GM is holding onto the plant as a ‘just in case,’” Hill said. “They’re not going to actively shop it around. At least you get some certainty if they close the plant, and the community can move on.”

Clarke said any decisions made in the future will be made much in the same way officials chose the Orion Township, Mich., plant for small car production.

Many local leaders have said the Spring Hill facility is well-positioned to land a product in the future because they claim it is one of the most technologically-advanced plants GM has.

The GM president agreed that the former Saturn plant is one of the best in the business, but a lot of other plants have caught up since the Spring Hill factory opened in 1990.

“Spring Hill was innovative, it was the most advanced manufacturing facility that we had — that was a couple of decades ago,” Clarke said. “All of our plants, I would tell you, are light years ahead of where anything was back when that facility was started. It is still an outstanding facility and one that we’re very proud of.”

Story created Jun 27, 2009 – 23:37:24 EDT.

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