Metro area in hunt for GM plant; $250 million facility would likely employ 470 Broening workers; 'Now ours to lose'; Union leader told plan won't affect decision on van-assembly site; Automotive


General Motors Corp. said yesterday that the Baltimore region is the leading contender for a new $250 million transmission manufacturing plant that would employ about 470 workers.

The work force at the plant, which would begin operations in 2001, would likely consist entirely of current workers at GM's Broening Highway van-assembly plant -- meaning the new plant would not hire additional workers, company officials said.

The announcement comes as the Broening Highway plant, which employs 3,100 people, faces a production slowdown and an uncertain number of layoffs in the spring, and possible closure after 2000.

Charles R. Alfred, president of United Auto Workers Local 239, said he was cautiously optimistic about the new project. He also said the assumption that GM's Allison Transmissions plant would take 470 workers from Broening Highway did not mean the company was planning steep job cuts or a plant closure.

"I've been assured that the decision to build this plant in Baltimore will have no adverse effect on any future decision" about Broening Highway, he said.

Company, union and state officials said the selection of Baltimore appears likely. GM said the final decision about where to build the plant depends on UAW support and local and state economic incentive programs.

"Many cities and states are offering very attractive packages these days," said Dan Hancock, president of Allison Transmission. "We would hope that Baltimore and the state of Maryland would be competitive."

Department of Business and Economic Development Secretary Richard C. Mike Lewin said he had not discussed incentives with GM. He said state officials, who have been talking with GM officials on a weekly basis since November, will meet with the company next week. "This is now ours to lose and I don't intend to lose it," he said.

GM is looking for property that ranges from 80 acres to 100 acres to build a 400,000-square-foot facility. A source who asked for anonymity said GM is focusing on two locations after a search that included sites in Baltimore City, and Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties. He would not identify the two locations.

"They're looking for a heavy industrial-zoned property located in close proximity to major highways," said James P. Lighthizer, vice president for CB Richard Ellis Commercial Real Estate, which is working for GM.

Hancock said GM wanted the plant within commuting distance for Broening Highway workers.

"We are very concerned about not dislocating employees who might transfer from the truck-assembly plant," Hancock said.

Company officials said a final decision on a site would be made by spring, with construction beginning soon afterward.

The new plant is necessary to meet demand for GM's 1000 series Allison automatic transmissions, which are sold to manufacturers of commercial, full-size pickup trucks. The plant would employ 400 workers and 70 salaried employees.

Allison has spent $750 million on its main plant in Indianapolis, which employs about 4,000 people and produces transmissions for trucks and buses.

"In recent years, investment and expansion at our Indianapolis business location has been tremendous," Hancock said. "However, we are quickly reaching the limits of our Indianapolis capacity for expansion."

The chief benefit of locating the plant in Maryland would be an experienced work force, Hancock said. The plant would not sell its transmissions to the Broening Highway plant. A port city location might help Allison ship transmissions to the Middle East, Africa and South America.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening called GM's decision a good sign for the state's economic development. "By announcing its intention today to build a new automatic transmission plant in the Baltimore region, General Motors has clearly recognized that Maryland has the right location, the right work force and quality of life that continues to attract prestigious national and international companies," he said in a statement.

He said state officials and federal lawmakers would continue to work to keep Broening Highway open after 2000.

U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, whose district includes the GM plant, said GM had allayed his initial concern that the new project might mean job cuts at Broening Highway.

"We were assured by GM that the transmission facility being located here doesn't change the process they're using on the evaluation of Broening Highway," he said.

GM is expected to consolidate production of the vans made here at its Wentzville, Mo., plant, which builds a larger van. Baltimore's best chance of continuing its 64-year relationship with GM is to win the right to produce another product.

Alfred, the president of UAW Local 239, said some workers at Broening Highway were alarmed by the announcement. "Everything they hear keeps them on edge," he said. "They're wondering about their future because they haven't been assigned a product."

He said he was confident that GM was trying to find a product for the Broening Highway plant and not writing it off with plans to ship workers to the new plant. "We're still in the hunt," he said.

Alfred said he believes Allison concluded that Broening Highway workers would be available for jobs at the new plant after reviewing sales at GM's Broening Highway plant. "With the amount of attrition I have, I don't think I'll have those people," Alfred said.

"We're doing what we can as a local union. The government is doing what they can," he said. "The rest is in God's hands. In this case, God is General Motors."

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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