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President Obama has chosen one man to spearhead relief efforts in places hit hard by the auto industry's decline. And today, Ed Montgomery visited a city that's become a symbol of that decline - Flint, Michigan. Montgomery toured a GM plant slated to build engines for the automaker's new plug-in electric vehicle, the Volt. But the city also provides a vivid real-world example of just how big a job creating a job recovery will be. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA: They started building cars in Flint more than 100 years ago. It used to be called Buick City. But today you could describe Flint as ground zero for the decline of American manufacturing. They do still build some vehicles in Flint: trucks, also engines and transmissions. That's what they were doing when President Obama's auto recovery czar toured the Flint Engine South plant on Bristol Road this morning.
(Soundbite of plant)
GONYEA: Among those on the plant tour was Duane Zuckschwerdt, a onetime Flint autoworker and now the UAW's regional director here. He recalled what this town once was.
Mr. DUANE ZUCKSCHWERDT (Regional Director, United Auto Workers): In the late '70s and early '80s there were 80,000 GM workers. Currently we've got 6,100. That doesn't count the job loss, you know, from the supplier base side.
GONYEA: The entourage that accompanied Montgomery from Washington on this trip included representatives from the Departments of Commerce, Transportation, Labor, Treasury and the Environmental Protection Agency. But it was Montgomery who spoke to reporters following the tour.
Mr. ED MONTGOMERY (Auto Recovery Czar): We recognize that the state has been hit hard. We recognize that Flint has an unemployment rate, I think over 15 percent now, this city in particular. And so what I want to find out from you, those who are on the ground, is how we can help you.
GONYEA: This afternoon, the Montgomery taskforce also stopped in Warren at the General Motors tech center, which is GM's engineering and design headquarters. In Flint there is great concern about the fate of GM. The White House could force the company to reorganize through bankruptcy - the path Chrysler is already taking. There's real worry that those auto jobs that remain in the city could be swept away. No one knows what GM will look like when the process is complete, but everyone knows even a best case scenario will mean a much smaller company with far fewer workers.
In Flint, of course, this is an old story. In an auditorium at the local community college, Ed Montgomery heard from elected officials, community and union leaders, economic development organizations and more. Each made the case that despite its troubles, this is a place with much to offer. Here's Woodrow Stanley who represents Flint in the state House of Representatives.
Representative WOODROW STANLEY (Democrat, Michigan): Flint has great assets. And one of those assets is a trained workforce. These are men and women that know the value of a good day's work.
GONYEA: As for the difficulty presented by the task of turning around a city like Flint, Stanley asked that the team from Washington look at it this way.
Rep. STANLEY: Flint, if it works here - make it work here in Flint, I guarantee that you can replicate it around this country.
GONYEA: Ed Montgomery nodded. He knows that making it work in Flint may be the toughest part of the monumental task he's been given.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Flint, Michigan.
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