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Group hopes funds help retain GM

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JAMES P. LEUTE
February 13, 2009
— A task force hopes that a slice of the $789 billion federal economic stimulus bill can be driven into efforts to keep General Motors in Janesville.

Members of the GM Retention Task Force were in Madison this week to pitch ideas that could make the plant more attractive to the automaker—or any other company interested in the sprawling site on Janesville's south side.


The group met with Gary Wolter and Al Fish, who are heading up Gov. Jim Doyle's newly created Office of Recovery and Reinvestment. The office will distribute the $3.5 billion Wisconsin is expected to get in stimulus money.


Doyle appointed Tim Cullen and Brad Dutcher to lead the task force after GM announced in June that it would cease production of sport-utility vehicles in Janesville. The plant stopped building the vehicles in December, and the local auto sector completed its layoffs of more than 3,000 people.


About 50 workers will continue to manufacture Isuzu trucks at the plant for a few more months.


"We were trying to get an idea of what projects might be eligible for the stimulus money," Cullen said. "It was a good meeting in the sense that we were able to get in front of these guys.


"I think Janesville and Rock County are very much on the state's radar screen."


Cullen, a former state Senate majority leader and secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, is no stranger to state government. He knows that stimulus money will be distributed on the basis of merit and politics.


"I've always felt that if you don't have the politics on your side, you do your best to neutralize it and make sure it doesn't hurt you," he said.


Cullen and others say the Janesville area has merit on its side. The area leads the state in unemployment, even with a significant number of local layoffs in the auto sector not yet counted.


"Because of the loss of jobs in Janesville, the area is high on the list when discussing different projects," said Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, D-Janesville.


Sheridan also attended Tuesday's meeting. Others included City Manager Eric Levitt, Rock County Economic Development Manager James Otterstein, Dutcher and Todd Brien of the United Auto Workers and representatives of U.S. Sens. Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold.


Cullen said the group threw out general ideas for plant improvements, most of which involve "greening" up the plant or site.


Possibilities include a new roof or more efficient lighting or heating systems. Another is the construction of a day care center on the plant grounds.


"The day care would be attractive to GM or any other companies, and if neither of those happen, at least we've got a day care on the south side," Cullen said.


Widening Interstate 90/39 between Madison and the state line also is a priority, he said.


Tuesday's discussion was preliminary and general in nature, Cullen said. The stimulus package and its details are difficult to understand, and more specific ideas likely will follow when the governor's office finally has money to disburse through more than 100 state programs.


"We talked about a general wish list of things that could enhance our efforts to get another product in the plant or get another company in there," Sheridan said. "If we do get another product or company, it will take time. And I like the idea that some of this money could be used to put dislocated workers to work on infrastructure projects."


First and foremost, the task force is focusing on the retention of GM, Cullen said. But many of the stimulus projects centering on the plant also could appeal to other tenants.


The task force continues to meet twice a month to brainstorm. It met once with GM officials in Detroit, but a follow-up meeting was sidetracked by the automaker's larger financial troubles that resulted in Congressional hearings late last year and a federal bailout.


"Our task force is tasked with GM retention, and we'll keep going until GM says, 'No,'" Cullen said. "We're continuing to come up with ideas and show that we care."



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