- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

RICHMOND (AP) — Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine held out little hope following a meeting with Ford executives yesterday that the nation’s No. 2 automaker would retain its Norfolk plant or put off its closing.

“They made it plain that they are not in the position to reconsider their decision,” Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, said upon his return to Virginia from Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.

With Ford’s sentiments unwavering, Mr. Kaine said state officials are now turning their attention to the 2,400 workers at the F-150 truck-assembly plant. They may need training and other assistance to re-enter the work force once the plant closes in 2008.

But Mr. Kaine noted that officials have two years to prepare for the closing, an edge that some other communities will not have as Ford shutters plants across the country.

Ford’s announcements have come amid disappointing U.S. sales. And higher gas prices may spell even more trouble for Ford, which is taking a hit on sales of trucks and sport utility vehicles.

Considering the company’s financial troubles, some industry observers had said that Ford would be unlikely to remain in Virginia. “With such a raft of plants to close, once you’re on that list, I think it’s very difficult to get off,” said Bernard Swiecki, project manager for the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Mr. Kaine traveled to Michigan with Norfolk Mayor Paul D. Fraim and other state and local officials. They met with several Ford representatives, including Anne Stevens, chief operating officer of Ford’s the Americas group.

The governor would not discuss any economic incentives that might have been offered. But given Ford’s competitive prospects, business professor Peter Morici thinks Virginia would not have fared well by offering a large package.

“This would be like investing in kerosene lamps in 1910,” said Mr. Morici, of the University of Maryland at College Park’s business school.

State officials have said that they do not hand out incentives without a thorough analysis of how Virginia would benefit in terms of jobs and tax revenue.

Last month, Ford announced it would close the F-150 plant in Norfolk. The automaker also plans to close plants in Wixom, Mich.; St. Paul, Minn.; St. Louis; Atlanta; Batavia, Ohio; and Windsor, Ontario. All would be shuttered by the end of 2008.

Norfolk officials are particularly concerned because Ford paid top manufacturing wages — an average of $65,000 a year with overtime. Those wages are about twice the regional average and at the high end of the manufacturing pay scale.

Some economists think the large Hampton Roads economy will not be significantly impacted by the loss of 2,400 jobs. Others warn, however, that the departure of a high-paying employer will be felt and will ripple through affiliated auto-parts facilities. Military cutbacks could also pose a threat, magnifying the impact of the plant shutdown.

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