Ford to close local plant; 1,800 jobs to be lost

By Ari Ofsevit

Two miles south of campus, everything is named after one entity: the Ford Bridge, Ford Parkway, the Ford Dam. Last Thursday, Ford announced that the Twin Cities Ford Assembly plant, after which all these are named, will close after 80 years in business, leaving 160 acres of prime real estate vacant when the plant is idled in 2008.

The decision was not a complete surprise—Ford announced several other plant closures in January and there have been rumors of the local plant closing since then. It produces the Ford Ranger pickup truck, and built the Model T when it opened in 1924.

Ford plans to eliminate 30,000 jobs nationwide in the next six years. The company’s sales, along with those of other major American car makers, have declined in recent years, a condition many blame on a lack of innovation.

The Ranger has been especially prone to sales declines, with only 120,000, less than a third of production a few years ago, sold in the late 1990s. “Ford has not spent money to redesign the Ranger in 14 years, they’ve let it die on the vine,” Bob Killeen, the Secretary-Treasurer of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 879, said.

He said that Ford has done nothing to advance technology, such as redesigning the truck for alternative fuels or as a hybrid. “They made their millions and billions off it and let it die,” Killeen said, adding that the workers are paying the price for the lack of development.

Gas prices have spiked recently, but Killeen does not attribute much of the decline in sales to this. “It is a small pickup and gets fairly decent mileage. It is a stale, old vehicle which hasn’t been facelifted,” he said. “The F-Series [a larger, less fuel-efficient truck] is selling like crazy.”

Killeen said that 800,000 F-Series trucks have been sold this year. Ford is also closing a plant in Norfolk, Va., which produces the F-Series.

The current UAW contract with Ford, which covers all workers nationwide, expires in 2007. It has provisions for guaranteed employment numbers where Ford “pays [workers] to do nothing until they have an option to take a job at another plant,” Killeen said.

Both Ford and General Motors want to eliminate these programs, and although the union would be opposed to this Killeen doesn’t know whether they would strike over it.

The greatest concern to the city, according to Bob Hume, a spokesman for Mayor Chris Coleman, is the 1,800 jobs the city will lose. It is unclear how many of these people live in Saint Paul, but Hume is worried about “the money creation which comes out of those jobs, and all the businesses in Highland Park.”

Hume also said that Ford has been “a big philanthropist in St. Paul, [and has helped to] sponsor Highland Fest,” a yearly festival in the neighborhood, as well as other events.

Still, Ford may keep a presence in the area. The company owns 122 acres of land on the main plot, and may turn it over to the Ford Motor Land Development Corporation (Ford Land) to develop. Ford Land developed other closed plants into mixed-use communities in Michigan.

Redevelopment of the land may even result in a higher tax base for the city should it no longer be used for industry. In addition to the 122 acres Ford owns, the Canadian National Railway owns 13 adjacent acres. Ford also owns 26 acres west of Mississippi River Boulevard adjacent to Hidden Falls Park which is likely not to be developed.

Still, the 135 acres in the main complex would be prime development. Nearby residential neighborhoods are valued at around $1.5 million per acre, although values along the river would surely be higher. It is possible that the whole plot, redeveloped, would be worth about $200 million. The Ford Plant is currently valued at just over $30 million, although its tax rate is higher than the residential tax rate in the city.

A study by the Pioneer Press found that residential development would easily generate twice as much tax revenue for the cash-strapped city, and mixed-use development could generate more.

Hume said that the city is “just beginning to start thinking about [redevelopment]… Mayor Coleman is now looking at the future of that site and what it means to the neighborhood and the city.”

David Lanegran ’63, a Geography professor and an expert in Twin Cities history, said that the plant was lured to its site as economic development for the city at a time when the area was still farmland. The site was especially good because of the cheap power from the dam and the availability of high quality sandstone for glass, he said. There are still tunnels under the factory where sand was mined for auto glass.

The area is unique, Lanegran said, because it is “a factory with no worker community around it.” Shortly after the factory was opened, the Ford Bridge, crossed by a streetcar line, provided access to developing neighborhoods across the river in Minneapolis. Most of the area around the Ford plant was not built up until after World War II.

“Most people believe nobody will want a factory site that large,” Lanegran said of the closing. “If you did the obvious you’d expand commercial development and mixed high- and low-rise housing. You can’t go real high because of river sight line protections.”

Geography Professor Laura Smith ’94 said that she thinks that Ford will “definitely hold on to the land because of its huge market and awesome site—you couldn’t even pick a better site in the middle of the city—scenic, centrally located, [and with] its own power.”

Carlos Espinosa Sr., father of Carlos Espinosa Jr. ’06, retired from the Ford Plant in 2004 after 30 years there. “I loved working there,” he said. “It was very hard, physically and mentally, but the wages and compensation and benefits were the best part.” Espinosa immigrated from Mexico in 1974.

He worked most of his time there on the production floor. “I worked supervision for some time [but] I would be spending less time with my son and more time working if I had stayed a supervisor,” so he moved back to the floor.

Espinosa Jr. said that his father, who became a citizen about five years ago, worked hard. “He always got up at [4:45 a.m.] and didn’t get home until five at night,” he said, but “that job gave him the ability [not only to put me] through college but also to afford a house.”

Espinosa Jr. said that his father had a lot of friends through the plant. “I remember going to Baker’s Square and [my dad] always knew someone—or how to get a discount,” he said.

What all the workers will do is anyone’s guess. Some will take jobs with Ford elsewhere, others might take early retirement. “Everybody says it’s a small fraction of the total economy. That’s true,” Lanegran said. “But the 1,800 or so people there are going to have a very difficult time finding jobs at that salary.”

“There is not a huge demand for the highly-skilled production workers any more,” Lanegran added. “They will probably have to take a lower-paying job.”