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10 July 2009 

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GM Bankruptcy Hits Small Tennessee Towns 

10 July 2009

Sign inside General Motors, Global Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan
Sign inside General Motors, Global Headquarters in Detroit, Michigan
When General Motors filed for bankruptcy in early June, it announced that up to fifteen facilities would either close or idle production as part of its reorganization. GM's Spring Hill manufacturing facility, one of the largest and most modern production facilities the company owns, is scheduled to idle in November. The move puts thousands of workers in rural Tennessee towns out of work, and threatens local businesses and governments that have come to depend on the money generated by the GM facility.

Mike Dinwiddie is having a tough term as mayor of Spring Hill, Tennessee. It's a job he's held for less than three months, with one issue dominating the agenda.

"When you take office and a few weeks later your biggest employer files bankruptcy and you end up losing it, it's tense and it's stressful," he said.

Spring Hill's biggest employer is General Motors.

The town and nearby Columbia, the birthplace of U.S. President James Polk, were small rural communities prior to 1990.

When GM selected Spring Hill for a new manufacturing facility for the Saturn brand in the late 1980s, the populations of both towns increased exponentially.

The Spring Hill facility was said to involve the largest U.S. capital investment in history, and money flowed into the communities.

"They've played a major role in what they have provided for the city," the mayor said. "They bought police cars, they bought police equipment. They've done a lot for the city."

Employment with Saturn's Spring Hill facility came with the promise of a "job for a lifetime" at a plant that would live for at least 100 years, says Robin McFarland, a former Saturn worker who now owns a restaurant in Spring Hill.

The possibility of working at Spring Hill and the promise of a bright future in Tennessee motivated McFarland to leave Flint, Michigan.

"I didn't like the Flint environment anymore," McFarland said. "It was very decayed and it wasn't showing a lot of promise for the future. I thought this area was a lot more diverse and showed a lot more potential both for my family and my kids."

McFarland no longer sees that potential.

By 2007, GM had shifted Saturn production to other facilities around the world. It spent an estimated $1 billion to retool the Spring Hill plant to make other GM vehicles.

Though the plant now makes sport utility vehicles, the end of Saturn production at Spring Hill is widely seen as the end of the boom years for the towns it helped put on the map.

Lately, the tables at McFarland's restaurant are empty as production at the nearby plant is suspended for several weeks. To McFarland, it's a reminder that his business is closely to tied to the fate of the workers at the Spring Hill facility.

"We've cut back quite a bit. Right now we have to do a lot of very intense paring of our expenses," McFarland said.

"Are you making any money?" VOA asked.

"Not really. Not right now. And it's going to get more desperate in the next month or two," McFarland responded.

Spring Hill and Columbia were dealt another blow when GM announced it would not make its new subcompact car at the Spring Hill facility.

Despite the news, Mayor Dinwiddie is upbeat. He hopes GM or another automobile manufacturer will save the plant.  
"And we'll see a rebound, and we'll have this plant at full capacity," the mayor said.

July 24 is the deadline for workers at the Spring Hill facility to accept buyout or early retirement packages. Part of the plant that makes engines will continue to operate, but most production is scheduled to end indefinitely in late November.  

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