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GM's Troubles Driving Down a City

Tens of thousands of job losses since the 1970s at the carmaker have taken a toll on Flint, Mich.

July 10, 2006|Brian Charlton | The Associated Press

FLINT, Mich. — James Rutherford has lived here his entire life, in good times and in bad.

The former mayor and police chief, now the director of the Flint Downtown Development Authority, says he doubts that the city -- once synonymous with automobile manufacturing -- can regain its place as a thriving industrial center.

"I don't think anyone else believes that we'll ever have major manufacturing in the city of Flint again," he said recently. "We've just about hit bottom."

General Motors Corp. and Delphi Corp., GM's former parts operation and now a separate company, announced June 26 that 47,600 of their employees -- including 35,000 from GM -- had agreed to take early retirement or buyout offers.

Among them were more than 3,100 of the 10,400 hourly workers in Genesee County's seven GM plants and an additional 1,500 of the 2,600 active workers at Delphi Flint East, the parts company's lone remaining plant in the Flint area.

The prospect of losing thousands of local good-paying jobs is "very traumatic for the whole area," said Russ Reynolds, president of United Auto Workers Local 651, which represents production workers at Delphi Flint East.

"There's a lot of sadness because this has been a good place to work for many, many years, and most of the people that work here live in this community," Reynolds said. "There's a lot of people here affected, not only at our site but in the community."

GM employed 80,000 workers in the Flint area in the late 1970s, but tens of thousands of the jobs have since been sent overseas, contracted out to other companies or simply eliminated. The city's plight gained notoriety after Michael Moore's 1989 film "Roger & Me," which shows Moore pursuing then-GM boss Roger Smith to confront him about laying off 33,000 auto workers in Flint.

As a result of the business climate, other local factories and retail shops have closed. The unemployment rate in Flint, a city of 120,000 residents, rose to 7.3% in May, the highest of any city in Michigan.

Kirby Blankenship, a carpenter who has worked at the GM Flint Metal Center for 15 years, said he and his co-workers were concerned about their jobs and pensions but realized the importance of the restructuring efforts.

"Everyone is a little nervous," he said, "but I think everyone knows it's a necessary step."

Mike Tessmer said business was down 30% at Timothy's Pub, his bar and restaurant near the Delphi Flint East plant. In the two years he has owned the establishment, Tessmer has had to cut his staff in half, to seven employees, because fewer customers are coming in at lunchtime and after work.

"The mood around here is just very depressing," he said. "They aren't working. They're kind of staying home and moping and saving money."

As Gary Lee waited to meet a friend outside Tom's Coney Island, another eatery near the factory, he said he believed that the area's future would rest with its institutions of higher learning. They include Kettering University, the University of Michigan in Flint and Mott Community College.

"I think the next generation will turn out some pretty talented people, and it won't be long until national businesses and even international businesses realize what we have here," said Lee, a salesman who lives in Holly, about 10 miles south of Flint.

Despite his pessimism about Flint's possible resurgence as a major industrial city, Rutherford, mayor from 1975 to 1983, during the city's industrial heyday, said good things were happening downtown.

Many boarded-up storefronts remain, but economic development officials are working hard to attract new businesses to the city. Abandoned homes have been razed, he said, and larger buildings are being turned into apartments and condominiums.

"The downtown area is going to be booming," Rutherford said.

*

Associated Press writer James Prichard in Grand Rapids, Mich., contributed to this report.

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