Sunday, September 18, 2011

Officials lobby GM to revive Spring Hill auto plant

Officials from Spring Hill and Maury County, along with Bill Hagerty, the state’s economic development commissioner, made their case to General Motors’ manufacturing executives in Detroit on Thursday for an eventual reopening of the automaker’s auto plant in Spring Hill.

While there, they also met with GM real estate executives over the automaker’s plans for about 2,000 acres it owns adjacent to the Spring Hill plant.

Local and state officials wanted to know whether any of that property might be made available to the community for other development, said Brandom Gengelbach, president of the Maury County Chamber & Economic Development Alliance, which organized the trip.

Gengelbach said there was no presumption on the part of the Tennessee delegation to attempt to pressure GM on a possible Spring Hill reopening.

The leaders, including Spring Hill Mayor Michael Dinwiddie and Maury County Mayor Jim Bailey, “recognize there has to be a business case for future investment by GM in Spring Hill,” Gengelbach said. “We have a down economy and people are out of work, so we know we’re not going to get a vehicle at Spring Hill unless new car sales warrant it.

“We just want to make sure that when things do come back, and when the demand justifies looking at adding production, Spring Hill can be first on the list,” he said.

Hagerty and members of the state Department of Economic and Community Development staff were along “to gather information,” said department spokesman Clint Brewer.

“We’ve been having conversations with GM and local officials,” he said. “We’ve heard from the company that the primary factor (in a decision to reopen the assembly line) is a question of vehicle demand increasing, rather than incentives.”

The automaker has not asked for any state or local incentives in connection with a possible restart of the assembly line, local officials said.

GM put the Spring Hill vehicle-assembly line “on standby” and laid off 2,000 workers when production of the Chevrolet Traverse crossover was moved to Lansing, Mich., nearly two years ago.

The company just a year earlier had completed a $750 million upgrade of the former Saturn plant to convert it to make the Traverse, but the plant was shuttered as part of GM’s bankruptcy reorganization.

There still are about 1,100 hourly workers employed at the facility making four-cylinder engines, metal body panels and plastic parts for a number of GM vehicles assembled at other plants, however. And a $500 million upgrade of the engine-production operation is under way, which is expected to add about 500 jobs.

The United Auto Workers Union is in final negotiations with GM for a new national labor contract that local union officials hope will include a new product for Spring Hill.

A deal is expected within a few days.

The company’s contract with the UAW expired Wednesday night, but the two sides have agreed to extend it temporarily while bargaining continues. The GM workers are barred from striking, however, under terms of the GM bankruptcy and bailout by the federal government.

Gengelbach said the local and state officials’ visit to Detroit on Thursday was “just coincidental” to the GM-UAW talks, and was not intended to push GM to include a new Spring Hill vehicle in a labor agreement.

Gengelbach said local officials primarily wanted to get acquainted with GM’s current manufacturing executives.

“All of the leadership has changed, and we felt it was important for us to meet the new leaders and make sure there is an awareness of our interest in the continuing success of their Spring Hill plant.”

The idea of converting some of GM’s unused land to other development was also a key component of the visit, and that meeting was separate from conversations with the manufacturing executives, Gengelbach said.

“They own over 2,000 acres at the facility, and we wanted to get an understanding about what the future use of some of that acreage might be,” he said. “They told us they are doing a study on the land, and looking at their plans.”