NPR logo GM, Saturn And The 'Motor City' Of The South

Finance & Economy

GM, Saturn And The 'Motor City' Of The South

The Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid sport utility vehicle is driven at the General Motors Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn. in 2006. The Vue Green Line is the first hybrid vehicle produced in Tennessee. AP hide caption

toggle caption

I grew up in Columbia, Tenn., just down the road from Spring Hill, a place you never would have heard of if General Motors hadn't picked it as the site for its revolutionary Saturn plant back in 1985. (In fact, I was a cub reporter for a local radio station that year, on summer break from college, and filed a piece about the GM decision for NPR.)

At the time, no offense meant, but Spring Hill wasn't even a stop on the road! Blink, and you missed it. It was truly just those rolling green hills that GM played up when it announced its decision to build a "different kind of car."

Spring Hill's recently elected mayor, Michael Dinwiddie, told us on today's program that the population back then was about 1,000 people. Today — because of the GM plant and a snowball of spin-off development that followed — it's 24,000. Things grew so fast the mayor said infrastructure development couldn't keep pace. A lot of people moved from up north, and I've heard from high school friends that the once tiny Catholic community had to build a bigger church because of the influx.

But now things are happening in reverse.

In 2007, GM moved its Saturn production to Mexico, taking several thousand jobs with it. The Spring Hill plant still produces the Chevy Traverse, but only at 24% capacity. And now people are waiting to hear if a GM bankruptcy will mean more job losses, and a reverse ripple effect.

Will the south one day have its own version of the "rust belt"? The mayor seemed optimistic.

It's strange to think how much one business decision can utterly transform a place. And once that happens, you can't just go back, at least not without a lot of pain somewhere.

— Jennifer Ludden