The gifts of tax breaks and credits that a Minnesota delegation led by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman carried this morning to Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., headquarters did not win over the hearts and minds of the company’s executives.
“In the meeting,’’ Pawlenty said, “Ford reiterated the decision” to close St. Paul’s Ford Motor Co. plant.
Minnesotans have heard that before, of course. For five years, the Highland Park plant, where Ford Ranger pickup trucks are produced, has been on the chopping block. But the current plan to close the plant in the fall of 2011 has a sense of finality to it.
Though the Minnesota delegation was reluctant to speak for Ford during a teleconference this morning, there were several factors that seem to put the 80-year-old plant on the very endangered list.
Pawlenty rattled off what Ford is seeking as it plans its future in a volatile industry:
• The company is seeking plants containing “flexible platforms,’’ meaning plants that could quickly switch from producing one type of vehicle to another. The Highland Park plant would need “hundreds of millions” of dollars in renovation to meet that qualification, Coleman said.
• The company want to have fewer plants, with higher capacities, located close to supply lines. Again, that’s a huge negative for the St. Paul plant, according to Pawlenty. “Minnesota is outside the supply chain corridor, and there’s nothing we can do to change that.’’
Was there any sort of silver lining?
“The reality,” said Coleman, “is that four or five years ago, they said they didn’t want to hear a proposal. The fact that we were able to present to Mark Fields [Ford’s president of the Americas], to me said something. I appreciate the fact they were willing to listen.”
Additionally, Pawlenty, Coleman and Dan McElroy, the state’s commissioner of Employment and Economic Development, all referred to the reality that the auto industry is constantly changing.
Pawlenty said that if in this fluid industry something changes — Ranger sales suddenly skyrocket, for example — Ford now has “something to consider.”
The package that the delegation took to Fields was built around legislation passed last session that would give Ford millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives if improvements were made on the plant. Additionally, there would be tax credits given to the company for a portion of the wages currently paid to the plant’s 750 employees. St. Paul chipped in with the concept of using the city’s Port Authority to purchase the plant and then lease it back to the company. The theory behind that incentive is that Ford would be able to use the cash from the sale to make renovations in the plant.
McElroy noted that the legislation could be used for any company that wanted to come to St. Paul to build vehicles. But he was quick to add that the state wants to keep Ford in St. Paul. He did say that Pawlenty has written to other vehicle manufacturers about the status of the plant.
Beyond the financial packages, the big selling point the Minnesotans tried to dazzle Ford with was the plant’s workforce.
In the midst of the constant threats of closure, the workforce, which has dropped from 2,000 to about 750, has won handfuls of awards for efficiency and productivity.
“We reminded the [Ford] leadership that the workers at the plant have taken the high road,’’ said McElroy. The United Auto Workers, he said, had contributed ideas to the package that the delegation presented to Ford.
But to date, there’s little to indicate that the high road leads anywhere but to oblivion.
Still, there always is a ray of hope around this old plant.
“It’s been scheduled for closure before,’’ Pawlenty said. “There have been other plants, not many, that came off the canvas and lived to fight another day. We’re just going to keep fighting until there’s nothing else to do.”