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VW Closing Hits Struggling Town Hard : Though Many Had Seen Signs Coming, Bad News Came as Shock

November 21, 1987|Associated Press

NEW STANTON, Pa. — The news Friday that Volkswagen will close its lone U.S. assembly plant shocked residents of an area already hit hard by declining manufacturing and farming.

"I feel numb," said Art Carr, 34, of Jeannette, a 10-year veteran assembly inspector at the plant. "I have no idea what I'm going to do."

Early shift workers leaving the sprawling blue and silver plant during a snow storm were handed printed news releases by security guards Friday.

"Merry Christmas from Volkswagen," one worker shouted as he left.

"Thanks, Ronnie Reagan," another said.

The workers generally said they expected bad news because of low production rates and declining sales of the Golf and Jetta models they assemble.

But, they said, a complete shutdown is the worst action the workers expected from Volkswagen.

"I can't say it was a surprise because the signs were coming," said Carr. "They went from two shifts to one shift. But still it was a shock."

"We all saw it coming. We didn't actually know when," said Melvin Apicella, 31, of Uniontown, a 10-year assembly line worker with three children.

Workers said they hoped Volkswagen will find a buyer, as intended, that will operate the plant and save the 2,500 blue- and white-collar jobs.

"We're hoping that these 2,500 people are going to be building Fords or Chevys or something," said Wayne Herrle, 43, of Westland.

Big Blow

Gov. Robert Casey said Ford Motor Co. officials told him they had looked at the plant.

"It's very preliminary, but there is some level of interest in the Volkswagen facility," he said.

The governor offered whatever "we can do to be helpful to make it happen."

The loss of the plant, its jobs and spinoff business, could prove to be as big a blow to Westmoreland County as the opening of the plant was a boon to a struggling local economy.

"It was very nice when this happened. Everybody smiled" when the first Volkswagen Rabbit rolled off the assembly line in April, 1978, said Joel Suter, chairman of the East Huntingdon Township supervisors. "It's kind of sad when it ends."

The township of 8,200 residents received about $100,000, or 10% of its 1987 budget, from real estate taxes at the plant and from the 400 Volkswagen employees living in the township, said Betty Leighty, township secretary-treasurer.

"Things are going to have to (be) cut back," said Suter. "It's going to be a long holiday."

Chrysler Corp. built the plant amid rolling farmland about 35 miles southeast of Pittsburgh beginning in 1968. But the company abandoned the project in a business slump in 1970.

Volkswagen, attempting to capitalize on a market once dominated by its ubiquitous Beetle, began looking for a U.S. assembly location in the mid 1970s.

The West German company was lured to semirural southwestern Pennsylvania by former Gov. Milton Shapp. The state help finance Volkswagen's venture, negotiated real estate tax breaks and constructed a new highway and railroad spur to serve the plant.

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