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With 1,200 Losing Their Jobs, Lordstown Hopes the Cycle Turns and Plans for a New Economy

Former General Motors Lordstown plant
The 6 million square foot GM plant in Lordstown is integral to the town's identity.

GM's announcement this week that it's investing a billion dollars in its U.S. operations will have no direct effect on 1,200 people in Lordstown. They're the third shift at the GM plant and this week, they lose their jobs. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze reports on the layoffs and what’s next for Lordstown.

The Chevy Cruze was the brightest light for GM coming out of the great recession. Designed and built under new labor rules in a transformed plant, annual sales skyrocketed to more than 270,000 in just four years.

But they tailed off to less than 190,000 last year. GM, its unions and Lordstown Mayor Arno Hill all agree on the reason:

The cost of cheap gas
“Everybody says this is great to have low gas prices. But the flip side is, you don’t sell small cars.” 

Hill says the law of supply and demand makes cutting production the only realistic choice for GM.

"You hate to see the third shift go. There’s a lot of other associated suppliers and businesses around, which also lose. But GM is trying to keep the value of their car up. And if the car sales go down and they keep building them, they would end up trying to have a fire sale to get rid of the cars.

Rail cars at Ohio Commerce Park
The rail yard started life as an Army depot. Now it's bring new tech to Lordstown.

Dan Crouse markets commercial and industrial property in Lordstown – in  particular the Ohio Commerce Park, which started life as a World War II Army depot.

“These are 1940’s wood buildings. There’s nothing glamourous about them. When this was built originally there was wood water lines because there was no steel, like a big whisky barrel miles long.” :15

New tech in an old setting
He looks out from his 18-year-old Chevy Tahoe at the other half of the 500 acres, a vista of open space bisected by railroad tracks. Decades ago, if it made too many cars for the market, GM used some of that space to store thousands of vehicles.

"They  didn’t want to stop making cars and laying people off, so they just warehoused them for months and months until the demand caught up with the supply.”

Dan Crouse says Lordstown is diversfying, but believes GM will ramp back up.

Now the yard is filled with long, low pyramids of pipe, rows of railcars, locomotives and a turbine for the nearly $900 million natural-gas-and-steam power plant under construction just south on Route 45.

"It’s huge. It’s 15 feet across and if you look on the end of it, the gross weight is 641,000 pounds.”   

And the steam generated by the exhaust from that first turbine will power a second. Crouse says it’s a sign of new tech and a new economy.

Automation is a factor

Buy American bumper stickers
Buy American is mantra in Lordstown.

But the picture of new jobs with that power plant – and with a new aluminum processor and food distributor in Lordstown – is mixed.

For example, as many as 500 highly skilled tradesmen and women are building the power plant – and will be building a second one nearby. The electricity they produce will supplant what had been coming from decommissioned coal-burning plants further south.

But each plant will employ as few as 20 people full time. Mayor Arno Hill says that’s the reality of automation and other trends in modern manufacturing.

"If you have a coal- powered plant, you have to keep shoveling the coal in somewhere. If you have a gas plant, it all comes in by gas pipes. It’s just the way things evolve.”

Hill believes the layoffs are part of the cyclical nature of the auto industry, and the work will return to GM Lordstown as it has for the last 50 years.  

"We have a great school system, we have a great village, a great community. But we know when people say Lordstown, they say General Motors."

For those dealing with the current layoffs, waiting it out is tough. Lordstown schools have waived extracurricular fees for students and are setting up a food pantry. Superintendent Terry Armstrong is a lifelong and passionate resident, who, by the way, drives a red Chevy Cruze.

"We have a great school system, we have a great village, a great community. But we know when people say Lordstown, they say General Motors."

Glenn Johnson, head of one of two unions at the GM plant, says it will be several more weeks before it’s clear exactly who is losing their jobs. Seniority rules mean some on the midnight crews will move to day jobs. Others may transfer to a GM plant in Tennessee. Still, "it’s really hard to look team members in the face and know that they’re not going to be able to provide for their family in the way that they’re accustomed to. “

A winning work ethic
32-year-old Kim Buhro is finishing up lunch with friends at Nese’s café. Its trade is breakfast and lunch, so it won’t be directly affected too much by the loss of the GM’s third shift. But like just about everybody in Lordstown, GM has a personal presence in her life. Her dad has worked there for aobut 30 years. Her sister recently joined him.

“She was really excited about the good news because she had been trying to get in there for awhile.”

But six months later, the job is gone. Buhro herself is heading to North Carolina to work with a friend who’s a contractor. But she holds out hope for jobs here and in the rest of the Mahoning Valley and says people here have a key advantage.

“They’re just used to going out and working every single day. That’s what I think will bring jobs back to the area, that drive and passion for work."

Whether those jobs will be with GM will depend on whether this slowdown is cyclical or a sign of more to come.