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GM's Wentzville expansion hailed as sign of economic progress

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2012 - The groundbreaking at the General Motors Wentzville plant had practically turned into a campaign rally for Democrats Monday when Steve Ehlmann, the Republican St. Charles County executive, asked the crowd for a moment of silence.

He wasn’t trying to tone down the enthusiasm -- necessarily. Instead, as the din of nearby machinery made its way to the tent set up for the occasion, he exulted:

“Hear that? Do you hear that tractor? That’s the sound of progress in St. Charles County. We haven’t heard it very much lately, but we’ll be hearing it a lot more.”

All the enthusiasm was prompted by the ceremonial start of the $380 million expansion of the plant, 500,000 new square feet to house a production line for the GM’s redesigned mid-size Colorado pickup. Actual construction began earlier this month.

Once production begins with the 2014 model, expected in the fall of 2013, GM officials say the plant will add 1,260 jobs on top of the 400 created when it added a second shift earlier this year to produce its current models, the Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana van.

Gov. Jay Nixon, who was on hand on a rainy day last November when the expansion was first announced, renewed his belief that it is only fitting that a major step in the renewal of the American auto industry should take place in Missouri.

“It’s who we are,” he said of the state’s long history of car manufacturing. “It’s part of our fundamental fabric.”

Along with praise for Nixon and President Barack Obama for their efforts in bringing GM back from the brink – and none-too-subtle calls for their re-election this fall – labor and management at the plant emphasized the cooperation it took for the automaker to add the space and the workers that would be coming to Wentzville.

“This is a really big day for us,” said plant manager John Dansby. “It’s been long in coming, and it’s finally here and we couldn’t be happier.”

Recalling the days when GM was “deep in the midst of bankruptcy,” he added:

“It’s good to be growing instead of shrinking, and it’s good to be growing here in Wentzville.”

What made the difference, he added, was that management and labor were “able to work together, united pulling in the same direction.”

That unity was echoed by Mike Bullock, chairman of Local 2250 of the United Auto Workers. He noted GM’s commitment to production in the United States, thanked Obama for the loan that brought the company back and thanked Nixon for working to pass the Missouri Manufacturing Jobs Act in 2010.

That law helped lead to the expansion. It provides incentives for companies, but only after they have met requirements for investment and employment.

Because of their actions, Bullock said, “Today, our future’s bright.”

Clearly relishing the moment in the sunshine, Nixon recalled that one of his first official acts upon taking office in 2009 was creating an automotive jobs task force to bring back a once-thriving Missouri industry that had faded substantially.

He said he had traveled to Detroit to convince GM officials that the “iconic American company” needed to reinvigorate its Wentzville plant and the businesses of suppliers and others who go along with it.

The result, he said, is something to celebrate.

“This is why we do what we do,” he said, “days like this, when you can literally see the future right over your shoulder.”

Placing the increase in employment at Wentzville into a larger context, Nixon noted that Missouri added 6,000 jobs during April, driving the state’s unemployment rate down to 7.3 percent, the lowest in 40 months. So far this year, he said, employers in the state have created 35,500 new jobs, more than any neighboring states, including 7,000 in manufacturing.

The session of the General Assembly that ended on Friday failed to pass any strong economic development legislation, though Nixon said that some bills that were sent to his desk should help strengthen the state’s economic climate.

Would he consider calling a special session as he did in 2010 to win passage of bills specifically aimed at economic development? “There’s nothing like that on the horizon right now,” Nixon said.

Asked how many of the new Wentzville jobs will go to local people, Bullock of the UAW noted that GM workers being displaced in Shreveport, La., will be offered the jobs first, but eventually he expects 80 percent or more of them to go to St. Louis area workers.

Some of those, he said, will probably be workers who have lost assembly line jobs with the closure of the area’s Ford and Chrysler plants in recent years.

He said GM has not made any commitment on how long the new shifts will last, but he added that the vehicles are expected to roll off the lines “however long customers are willing to buy them."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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