GM's Broening Future


There's reason to cheer General Motors' intention to keep its Broening Highway minivan plant open as it begins a "downsizing" campaign to meet its competition in a trimmer, slimmer form. For despite the recent decision to lay off 300 of the plant's workers, the reasons that impelled GM to renovate it are still extant:

* A cooperative work force. United Auto Workers leaders figured early on that they could keep Broening Highway open only by learning to work smarter and to team up with management. That's why the union participated in a $6-million retraining program set up as GM installed $270 million worth of robots and other improvements.

* Support from local and state government. Then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer spent $360,000 in city funds to widen Broening Highway in 1984 and wangled $800,000 from the Maryland Industrial and Commercial Redevelopment Fund to build two pedestrian bridges linking the plant with parking in Holabird Industrial Park. The city also turned over land.

* A favorable East Coast location. GM's long-term plan for the plant foresaw shipping minivans to the Southeast and Europe. Baltimore's newly modernized port makes that easier to do now, and Eastern Europe's hunger for quality small vehicles makes this a prime time to plan exports.

* Supplier cooperation. Several parts suppliers moved plants here when Broening Highway was upgraded and a new concept, Just-In-Time Warehousing, made it possible for up to 1,000 vendors to supply GM's plant from an independent parts depot, the first in North America.

All of those advantages are still in place. Analysts noted the $2.1 billion restructuring charge associated with closing four assembly plants in Framingham, Mass., Leeds, Mo., Pontiac, Mich., and Lakewood, Ga., and pronounced it big enough to turn GM's losses around. But speculation continues that Broening Highway might be phased out when its popular minivans give way to new models for the 1996-97 model year. Its facilities, state-of-the-art in 1984, will need major re-tooling by then. And its two-level structure is less than ideal in a world of one-story plants.

State and regional officials should be looking now at ways they can help keep Broening Highway open. That plant draws its 3,700-strong work force as much from the suburbs as from the city, as do the suppliers who serve it. And the opportunities its re-tooling could provide for the companies showcased in the Greater Baltimore Committee's High Tech Week should not be lost.

The know-how, in educational institutions, state training programs and in contractors who could upgrade the plant, is here. What's needed is to find and fix problems that might turn GM away from Broening Highway, before GM's powers-that-be start thinking of axing it.

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