Broening breathing room; GM: State and Baltimore region gain more time to build case for retaining vital auto plant.


GENERAL Motors' decision to keep its 64-year-old Baltimore Assembly plant operating four more years is a significant opportunity for state and local officials.

It isn't yet cause for celebration: One shift of 1,200 employees may be eliminated, and the plant's fate beyond 2003 is uncertain. But with 2,600 jobs and an estimated $1 billion impact on the local economy, GM's Broening Highway plant is a major economic asset to the region.

Its future has been up in the air for years. Previously, GM said it would wind down Broening's production of Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari minivans at the end of 2001.

It has not committed to produce another model at the plant.

Yet its decision to extend production of minivans through 2003 gives Maryland economic officials more time to build a case that the world's largest automaker should maintain its productive Baltimore.

That argument is bolstered by GM's decision to build a $214-million Allison Transmission plant in White Marsh, scheduled to open in 2001. GM executives have already told Maryland officials they were impressed with the speed with which the property was identified and permitting completed.

GM is also obviously pleased with the quality of the work force because the new plant will be staffed by GM workers from Broening Highway.

"We have to keep the pressure on," said Maryland Secretary of Economic Development Richard C. Mike Lewin. State and local officials have promised GM retraining grants, road-widening and financing help.

Union officials have done their part by amending work rules to increase productivity.

State and local officials still need some luck, but they just received more time to build their case.

They should use it wisely.

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