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One last open house at GM in Ontario

December 19, 2009

One last open house at GM in Ontario

By AL LAWRENCE
News Journal correspondent

ONTARIO — The floor area was bare where assembly lines of automated welders once stood, and only a few presses were running Friday at GM’s Ontario plant as hundreds of retirees attended the factory’s last holiday open house.

General Motors recently announced operations at the General Motors Corp. Mansfield/Ontario Metal Center would end in January after nearly 55 years of production. The facility is expected to close in June.

"It’s sad that we worked all those years and everything we worked for is gone," former employee Vanessa Hayes said. The Mansfield woman retired in July 2008 after 30 years at the plant.

Seeing the empty space saddened Hayes’ former co-worker Bernice McRae, of Mansfield, who retired this year. "It was more family-oriented when we were here," she said. "We all worked together."

In an event lasting nearly six hours, more than 400 people signed the guest register, toured the plant and stopped at a buffet line in the old assembly area.

"It’s really sad — like a part of you is missing," said Doc Stumbo, a former United Auto Workers Local 549 president who worked at the plant for 42 years. "There were a lot of good times and a lot of people made a good living working here."

Current local UAW president Pam Drake, who didn’t attend the party, said she was thankful GM was able to hold one last open house to let retirees see what is happening with the plant and give them a sense of closure.

Drake spent Friday at union headquarters, where Local 549 helped more than 200 needy area residents with food baskets and gift cards through its Care and Share program.

Drake said closing the Ontario plant will have a tremendous effect on the community beyond the loss of jobs. She said Care and Share raises $20,000 to $25,000 each Christmas in addition to the money union members gave to the local United Way.

Plant manager Don Wine, who has worked in Ontario for nearly five years, helped close GM’s Willow Run plant in Michigan in 1992. He said the local situation is different because equipment is being moved out as work winds down, which has made the last six months tough.

"We’ve had to talk about what is going to happen to people, helping them go where they want to go, making sure the dies get to where they’re needed and getting production where it needs to go," he said.

Wine said at least five firms have toured the plant, although only one is a stamping operation.

"We have had people in the facility to ‘kick the tires,’ so to speak, and see what’s here — but I don’t know of anyone who has put money down to buy it," he said.

Wine did not reveal the names of the plant’s potential suitors. Neither did Herman Stine, regional development director for the Ohio Department of Development, who confirmed several firms have shown interest.

The property likely won’t be formally marketed until mid-2010, said Stine, who recently met with officials from Motors Liquidation Corp. MCL, or the "old GM," owns the plant and leases it to the new GM.

"Motors Liquidation Corporation is still in bankruptcy and their goal is to try to get out in mid-2010," Stine said. "It’s a much easier process to go forward and sell the property if they are out of bankruptcy than if they are still in bankruptcy."

Wine said a lot of the plant’s equipment, particularly the welders, is gone — already moved to other GM facilities. What to do with the remaining equipment and presses is still in question.

One of the presses, TP-19, is being dismantled for a move to Parma.

"It’s like when you sell your house and you’re trying to get rid of things before you move — only with this, there’s just 3.2 million-square-feet more of it," Wine said.

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