Plan aimed at keeping Ford plant near St. Louis

Saturday, February 22, 2003

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- A governor-appointed task force on Friday outlined a plan aimed at keeping open a Ford Motor Co. plant in suburban St. Louis.

The goal of the proposed legislation and other measures is to create incentives to keep Ford in north St. Louis County by offering tax breaks, job training and other resources the company could use, like flexibility in some regulations.

"Part of the plan requires change in state law and incentives to keep Ford successful in Hazelwood," said Gov. Bob Holden, who said the loss of the company in Missouri would be felt statewide, not just in the St. Louis region.

Ford announced in January 2002 that it plans to shut down the plant in the next few years as part of a restructuring process meant to stem the company's red ink. About 2,600 jobs would be lost.

The task force's plan calls for providing incentives for Ford to modernize the plant, retrain workers, and possible transportation improvements outside the plant.

It would create an enterprise zone in the region around the plant, a move aimed at retaining Ford and attracting additional businesses, potentially including suppliers for the automaker.

Ford offered little encouragement.

"Right now, given the circumstances, we still plan to close the plant by mid-decade," spokesman Ed Lewis said. "That's not to discount the candid and productive talks we've had with the state."

Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway said it will still be an uphill battle to keep the plant open. She said Ford brings roughly $25 million annually into Missouri in state tax revenue, more than offsetting the estimated $35 million the incentives would cost over the next decade.

"I think that's a pretty good trade," Hanaway said.

The legislation, which could be filed next week, would amend current laws relating to three programs: the BUILD program incentives, the enterprize zone program and the Community College New Jobs training program.

Normally, the government uses these programs to encourage business and offer incentives for new jobs created. The new legislation would reward Ford for jobs retained, though the company would have to make an economic investment to qualify. Ford would have to make new capital investment, like modernizing the Hazelwood plant; retain existing jobs; and commit to a period of time it will keep the jobs in Missouri.

Ford, based in Dearborn, Mich., believes it can save money by moving production of the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer sport utility vehicles now built in Hazelwood to the automaker's SUV plant in Louisville, Ky. The Lincoln Aviator, manufactured since last fall, is being built here, though Ford has not said where it will move production of that vehicle if the Hazelwood plant closes.

Deborah Elliott, 38, a single mother from Hazelwood who works until 3:30 a.m. at the Ford plant wrapping wires to make sure the motor isn't damaged when it's placed in a car, was encouraged by the efforts Friday.

"I love my job. I love my Ford Explorer. The benefits are great," she said. The job can be tough, she said, but, "It's worth it. We're making quality vehicles."

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