- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 16, 2004

General Motors Corp. plans to close its Baltimore manufacturing operations next year, shuttering a factory that employs 1,100 hourly and salaried workers.

Detroit-based GM yesterday told workers that the plant, the company’s sole producer of Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans, would close in 2005, though it did not set a specific date.

“[The vans] really reached the end of their life cycle. The sales have declined to where it is no longer viable to build them in a dedicated plant,” said Stefan Weinmann, a GM spokesman.

GM more than a year ago said the plant may have to close and negotiated that possibility into a contract with the United Auto Workers.

Van sales had been slumping and the 69-year-old factory, retooled to produce the vans in the mid-1980s, was operating below capacity.

GM officials yesterday met with Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., state and union officials to formalize the shutdown.

“It’s sad to see an era of auto assembly end in Baltimore. But we will move forward,” said Aris Melissaratos, Maryland’s secretary of business and economic development.

The state had negotiated with GM to keep the plant open, but ultimately came up short.

The plant is still a major Baltimore employer, and affects the local economy beyond its 1,100 jobs.

Fifteen local suppliers, including Johnson Controls, Old Line Plastics and Tower Automotive, and 3,000 of their employees depend on contracts with the plant. Collectively, the plant’s economic impact on the region is about $1 billion per year.

Manufacturing employment in the Baltimore region has declined steadily in recent decades. About 78,400 people work in manufacturing this year, down from 127,000 as recently as 1990, according to state figures.

GM’s Broening Highway plant only four years ago still operated with two shifts, though now it is down to one staffed by 1,000 hourly employees.

As the plant downsized, some of the workers transferred to the nearby Allison transmission plant in White Marsh, which is owned by GM.

However, the smaller transmission plant can absorb only a small portion of the jobs from the assembly plant.

Mr. Weinmann said that before the plant closes GM would develop a specific plan that may or may not include transferring workers to other facilities, severance packages or other benefits.

“Between now and the time the plant will close we will develop a plan,” he said.

About 600 workers are eligible for retirement, Walter Plummer, president of the United Auto Workers Local 239, told the Associated Press. He said the others are covered under a contract that runs through 2007.

Mr. Melissaratos said another use would be found for the factory site, including a possible tie-in to nearby port facilities.

“We were prepared for the eventuality. In the next few weeks we will come out with alternative plans for the site,” he said.

GM shares fell 59 cents to $39.66 yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange.

• Tom Ramstack contributed to this article.

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