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'Green' cars could get Missouri's auto industry moving again, says task force

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 9, 2009 - The state of Missouri should work to recapture lost jobs and production in the auto industry by concentrating on technology, education and economic incentives, a task force said in a report released Wednesday by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Speaking at a Ford assembly plant in Claycomo, Mo., near Kansas City -- a facility that is one of the few bright spots in a bleak automotive picture, with a third shift about to be added -- Nixon said environmentally sound "green" vehicles could help Missouri regain some of the thousands of jobs that have left the state.

Noting that hybrid technology could help expand production at the Ford plant, Nixon said that "a strong, vibrant automotive industry is vital for Missouri."

That strength has been sapped in recent years: Ford closed its plant in Hazelwood in 2006; Chrysler shut its two plants in Fenton last year and this year; and GM cut one shift at Wentzville. Consequently, Missouri has seen its automotive employment shrink by 35 percent, down to 25,500 -- the eighth-highest level in the nation. Production is down by 60 percent.

During the past few months, Nixon said his automotive jobs task force, made up of people from a wide range of business, labor and education, has "reviewed the history of Missouri's automotive industry; assessed our current strengths and opportunities for growth; and offered their collective insights about where we need to head in the future."

The recommendations include:

* Missouri should support new automotive technology, both in terms of development and in terms of consumption.   

Such support could include financial tax credits for businesses and educational support for research into alternative fuels. Given the state's fiscal crunch, the panel said, any tax breaks need to be limited in their size and eligibility.

* To take advantage of environmentally friendly vehicles, Missouri should establish a "green automotive corridor" to get a jump on other states by establishing standards, service requirements and other ways to nourish the emerging industry.

Such an effort, the task force said, could be a joint effort between the state departments of natural resources, transportation and other fields that could contribute expertise.

* To coordinate programs and policies, the state should set up a "Missouri Center for Automotive Excellence" or "Missouri Center for Automotive Technology."

The center would collect and disseminate information from government and private sources that would help Missouri take advantage of developments in the industry. It could be funded by both public and private funds.

* Help attract new automotive production by encouraging Missourians to buy vehicles that take advantage of the latest technology.

Public service announcements could help make vehicle buyers aware of which cars and trucks are made in Missouri and could be more efficient to operate than their current ones. The state could also encourage local governments to buy vehicles that use the newest technology.

* Integrate up-to-date developments in the industry into maintenance and driver education programs.

Vocational and technical schools could take the lead in job training, while driver training programs in other schools could emphasize consumer education.

* Foster a culture of entrepreneurship in auto-related companies.

This effort could help prevent a "skill drain" where workers in the automotive industry who have lost their jobs are forced to move out of Missouri to find new employment rather than develop their own businesses here.

* Provide technical or financial assistance for businesses that want to diversify into new industries.

The rigorous standards required by auto manufacturers could be transferred to other manufacturing such as aerospace or renewable energy.

* Use incentives to attract new companies and retain current ones.

The report cited Ohio and Michigan as two states that have actively used such incentives to help recover and shift from automotive employment to jobs in other industries.

* Develop a statewide manufacturing policy.

Such a blueprint, the panel said, would look at issues such as taxation, workforce development, environmental regulation, education and other factors that could help make Missouri as attractive a climate as possible for business and industry.

* Develop special environmental regulation that would govern the reuse of abandoned automotive plants.

Environmental liabilities that often come with such facilities could deter new businesses from locating there, so the state needs to balance regulation with development incentives.

In conclusion, the task force report compared the upheaval in the auto industry to the earthquake of 1811, which altered the geography of the state of Missouri and produced aftershocks that were felt for months afterward.

Despite the new shocks coming from Chrysler, Ford and others, the panel said, "Missouri has the ability and desire to adapt to the rapidly shifting world of automotive manufacturing. Only with strong leadership can Missouri now take the necessary measures it must now implement to re-assert its role in the global automotive industry."