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Matt Blunt to meet with Ford about plans to close Hazelwood plant

Thursday, January 5, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- Gov. Matt Blunt, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and Hazelwood Mayor T.R. Carr will travel to Detroit Thursday to try and persuade Ford Motor Co. to keep open a plant in Hazelwood, representatives of Blunt and Dooley said Wednesday.

Ford has not officially announced plans to shutter the north St. Louis County plant where 1,400 workers make Ford Explorers, Mercury Mountaineer and Lincoln Aviator sport utility vehicles.

But the Wall Street Journal, citing two unidentified people familiar with the automaker's plans, said last month that Ford is likely to close five North American plants, including Hazelwood. A Ford spokesman would say only that the company has excess capacity and an announcement will be made in January.

The closings would eliminate 7,500 jobs, or 6 percent of Ford's North American work force.

"We're not just going to sit back," said Mac Scott, a spokesman for Dooley. "We want to make sure that Ford understands there are alternatives. We can provide a lot of different reasons why they shouldn't close the plant."

Asked if those reasons could include tax breaks and other financial incentives, Scott said, "That's certainly part of the discussion. What ends up being presented, we'll know tomorrow."

Blunt's office said the governor is leading a team of state and local officials to Dearborn to meet with Ford officials to discuss Missouri's commitment to the automaker. The statement said no decisions have been made by the company or the state. Blunt and Dooley are scheduled to discuss the meeting during a news conference at 6 p.m. today at Lambert Airport, after returning from Detroit.

Ford said Wednesday that its sales dropped 4 percent in 2005 as consumer demand for trucks and sport utility vehicles fell in the face of high gas prices. The nation's second biggest automaker said its car sales rose 5 percent for its Ford, Lincoln and Mercury brands, but truck and SUV sales fell 8 percent. Sales of Ford's Explorer and Expedition SUVs fell by more than 28 percent.

The average autoworker at Hazelwood earns nearly $65,000 with overtime. The average Missourian earns about half that.

This isn't the first time the Hazelwood plant has faced an uncertain future.

In 2002, Ford announced plans to close the plant. But then-Gov. Bob Holden appointed a task force that helped persuade the company to keep the plant open, at least through 2007. In return, Ford received $9 million in state incentives and $8 million in local tax abatements.

Still, declining sales of SUVs prompted Ford to shut down one of the plant's two shifts in December 2004, leaving 800 people out of work.

Carr said city and state officials have asked Ford to make the Hazelwood plant a flexible one that can eventually switch to another product line.

The potential loss of the Ford plant comes at a time when General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler are expanding their St. Louis-area plants, thanks in part to financial incentives.

GM makes full-sized vans in Wentzville; DaimlerChrysler makes minivans and pickup trucks in Fenton.

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