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Is this GM's final 'no'?

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GINA R. HEINE
March 18, 2009
— Was General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner's "no" the final no for Janesville?

That's the question local leaders have been trying to answer since being caught off guard Tuesday by Wagoner's comments about the future of the Janesville assembly plant.


Wagoner said the Janesville community should not be "overly optimistic" about the plant reopening and retooling the facility is "not what we're looking at," according to a recording of Wagoner's remarks to reporters at a Tuesday breakfast in Washington, D.C.


That surprised Tim Cullen, leader of the local GM Retention Task Force, and Rep. Mike Sheridan because lawmakers and leaders on the task force hadn't had any contact with GM officials.


"I'm kind of in a wait-and-see what that really means," Sheridan said.


Local leaders hope to be in touch with GM officials today.


If Wagoner's comments Tuesday are the final word, it's not the way the local task force thought information would be delivered. The local group had been asked not to communicate with GM through the media, Cullen said.


"I think that obviously the tone of the quotes is extremely disappointing," he said. "It's contrary to what his own head of North American operations has been saying to us."


The local task force has been working since last summer to retain a GM product at the Janesville plant. They met twice with GM officials to pitch an offer. When the group left Michigan at its last meeting in November, Cullen said they were led to believe they'd have another meeting this spring.


"We were expecting that to take place," Cullen said.


Wagoner acknowledged the task force's work in his comments Tuesday.


"(We) received tremendous offers from the local union and state and local government on what they could do to support a retooling, which we greatly appreciate," he said.


But the industry has weakened, and there isn't demand for that sort of production capacity, making retooling unlikely, he said.


"As we sit here today, as much as I'd like to say, ‘Yeah, we are going to do that,' that's not what we're looking at," he said.


Wagoner said GM leaders have "told our friends at Janesville" that the company isn't making any promises, and the bottom line is "we're going to have to ramp down."


"If things change, the fact (is,) it's been a good plan, good working relationship (with Janesville) and great community support would be something that would weigh in if opportunities present themselves in the future, but probably not fair to be overly optimistic," he said.


Cullen said Troy Clarke, head of GM's North American operations, had given the impression to local leaders that they weren't yet out of the game. While GM's cash flow problems were an immediate issue, Clarke told them, GM still was very serious about Janesville's proposal, Cullen said.


"If it is the final no, I'm mostly disappointed for the workers and the people in the community who held out hope that there'd be a different answer," he said.


Wagoner addressed the future of the Janesville building Tuesday in response to a reporter's question, but he gave no definite plans.


He said GM has consistently worked with local communities during previous plant closures.


He said "there's no reason not to sell it," and in many cases the company puts money into buildings to help redevelop and increase the chances of sites being usable and valuable to the community.


If this is the final no, Cullen said, then the next best step would be to get local control of the building, and it sounds as if GM would be cooperative, based on Wagoner's comments.


The task force has been working on ideas for the plant in case GM turned down the group's offer, he said. It has not been decided if the current task force would work on plans for the plant after a final no from GM, or if another group would form, he said.


"I'm not ready to give up," Sheridan said. "Once this economy turns around, they're going to have to produce these vehicles somewhere."



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