GM celebrates new plant, uncertain about the old; Executives can't say if Broening van factory will close after 2001; New facility to open then


Even while celebrating the start of construction on General Motors Corp.'s new Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh yesterday, the automaker's top executive didn't offer any assurances that the company's van assembly plant on Broening Highway will be around for the long term.

GM has promised that the 64-year-old plant in Southeast Baltimore that employs nearly 3,000 people will stay open until at least 2001. But after that its future is unclear.

"The market decides how long [the plant] will run," GM Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John F. Smith Jr. said yesterday at a groundbreaking ceremony. "Right now things look good."

But that doesn't mean that if sales of the plant's two vans -- the Chevy Astro and GMC Safari -- take a downward turn that a new product will be introduced in their place.

Making a new vehicle would involve renovating and retrofitting the plant, which many say is costly and unrealistic, given the plant's age.

Smith indicated yesterday that GM isn't planning any new products at Broening Highway.

"The design is unique to the plant and it will stay in that configuration," he said.

State officials hope to persuade GM to keep the plant open beyond 2001. If that isn't feasible, however, officials are hopeful GM will move other business here.

"We have 200 acres around the [van] plant and 1,200 acres within three miles of the plant -- vacant land that could be assembled for a site for another heavy-manufacturing facility on its own or in conjunction with Broening Highway," said Richard C. Mike Lewin, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

"There are a lot of unknowns out there, but that's the reason [state officials] have worked so diligently to assure GM of our complete cooperation."

Lewin said he and Gov. Parris N. Glendening and other officials told Smith yesterday that the state is working hard to strengthen its automotive work force.

"We are actively working with GM to train and retrain employees at Broening Highway and the new plant at Allison," Lewin said. "And [Smith] was very appreciative and knowledgeable about that." Some have expressed fear that because the new transmission plant is going to be staffed largely with current members of the United Auto Workers -- most of whom are expected to come from Broening Highway -- it is a sign that GM is planning to close the van plant.

But Charles R. Alfred, president of UAW Local 239, which represents workers at the van plant, was upbeat about the future. "I am totally optimistic. Broening Highway is not dead -- we're as good as any plant in the system if not better," he said. "[State officials] have worked tirelessly to keep us here and my membership also works very hard to make that happen."

Part of that effort includes providing incentives to bring the Allison plant here -- a preview of what the state would be willing to do to keep the van plant.

The state is spending more than $14 million on the Allison plant. That includes $8 million to widen the road leading to the plant; nearly $4 million in grants and tax credits; and a $2.25 million loan from the "Sunny Day" fund that will be forgiven if the plant employs, for five years, at least 420 full-time employees beginning Dec. 31, 2002.

The $216 million facility is set to open in 2001. Workers are expected to begin training in January. The site has enough space to allow for the plant and its work force to double in size.

Richard N. Block, professor of labor and industrial relations at Michigan State University, said GM will likely stay in the area, but maybe not in its current form.

"In some sense what GM is saying is, 'We intend to maintain a long-term presence in the Chesapeake Bay area.' It may not be building vans, but it will be building something," he said.

"It may well be the transmission plant and in the long run that may actually be better for Baltimore because it is less product specific. It's easier to retool a transmission plant than to retool a van plant."

Michael Robinet, director of forecast services at automotive research firm CSM Worldwide Inc. in Detroit, said the van plant's age and efficiency is beside the point.

"The bigger issue is Baltimore's distance from core suppliers who are in the Midwest. And look where many of the vehicles go -- many go to the Midwest and the Southeast and Southwest, so there are transportation costs involved there," he said.

Pub Date: 9/16/99

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