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As industry falters, area economy at risk

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As industry falters, area economy at risk

Experts, workers alike lament current woes, hope for future

By JENNA MINK, The Daily News, jmink@bgdailynews.com/783-3246
Thursday, March 26, 2009 11:44 AM CDT


It’s a frightening time for Deborah Billingham.

“I’m scared,” said Billingham, an employee at the General Motors Bowling Green Assembly Plant. “When I first came here, it was 10 hours every single day. I never thought it would come to this.”

The local auto industry has been slammed this week with further plant shutdowns and job losses - troubling news for a region that depends heavily on the auto industry.

S-R of Kentucky Inc., a vehicle trim manufacturer on Scotty’s Way, plans to close its plant indefinitely, leaving more than 200 workers without jobs. The GM plant will shut down periodically, for a total of six weeks, between now and the end of June. The Corvette plant has cut about 130 jobs and officials estimate another 100 or so jobs will be gone by the end of the year.

“It’s obvious the southcentral Kentucky economy, for better or for worse, is tied very closely to the auto industry,” said Jim Hizer, president and CEO of the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce. “Until auto sales start picking up again, then I think that it’s going to be a challenge for us from an economic standpoint.”

About 32 percent of regional jobs are connected to the auto industry - nearly 10,000 jobs throughout the region are directly related to automakers. The industry indirectly pumps about $3 billion into southcentral Kentucky, according to the Bowling Green Area Chamber of Commerce.

About 15 percent of the city’s occupational tax revenue is generated from auto-related businesses, said David Lyne, city license division manager.

“It’s the nature of our economic system to have long periods of economic growth followed by periods of restructuring,” Hizer said. “In the short term, it’s difficult for the employees and their families who are affected by this, and our hearts and prayers are with those folks.”

Workers at the Corvette plant were preparing Wednesday for a two-week shutdown starting Monday. The plant has been closed for the majority of the new year - it reopened Feb. 23 after a near two-month shutdown.

During the temporary shutdowns, Dan Lipp spends time with his eight children.

“We’ve all pulled up our bootstraps and tightened our belts,” he said. “My wife even went out and got a job.”

Lipp has worked for GM for 25 years, and he has a positive outlook for the company’s future.

“Right now, we’re beginning to head into a valley,” he said. “Beyond that valley, I see a mountain of opportunities coming up. All we can do is look up.”

Likewise, Frankie Lovings, a 35-year GM worker, has high hopes for the future. Lovings said her Christian faith keeps her going during tough times.

“It’s going to be a much better year,” she said. “I can see it. I can feel it.”

A morale booster came this week to the plant in the form of Mark Sollazo - the Wisconsin native traveled to Bowling Green to purchase two Corvettes.

Sollazo has collected Corvettes since his father introduced him to classic cars. Sollazo said he also plans to purchase a Cadillac XLR soon for his wife - an exception to the shattered consumer confidence that has plagued auto sales.

“My philosophy is, don’t let the downed economy stop you from what you want to do,” he said. “I’m not going to wait for the economy (to mend) because I may not be here tomorrow.”

Like Sollazo, GM workers said they are proud of the vehicles they produce, and they are worried for the Corvette’s future as well as their own.

“There isn’t a person out here that builds this car that isn’t proud of it,” said John Weber, who has worked with GM for 26 years.

Weber said he has been through countless short-term layoffs since he started working for the company.

“It’s part of being an autoworker,” he said. “We sell cars, we work. We don’t sell cars, we don’t work.”

While she worries about the future of her job, Billingham said she also worries about “whether or not this car’s going to have a future,” she said.

“It’s my favorite car, too,” Billingham said. “I’ve loved this car since I was 8 years old.”
 

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