JENNIFER LUDDEN, Host:
I'm Jennifer Ludden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Michel Martin is back on Monday.
Coming up, a look at the state of Asian-American politics from two different generations. But first, a look at how the turmoil at General Motors is playing out in one community. The auto giant is expected to file for bankruptcy protection Monday, that's the Obama administration's deadline for GM to restructure and drastically cut costs. If the company does fall into bankruptcy, it will be the second American auto maker to do so. Chrysler filed last month. General Motors has been slashing costs much of this year. Just this month GM's enclosure notices to 1100 dealerships. The looming fear of even more cuts has been simmering in many towns across the nation where General Motors still operates. One of those places is Spring Hill, Tennessee.
To talk about how the town's faring, we turn to Spring Hill's Mayor, Michael Dinwiddie, and reporter Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville. He covers the area's automotive industry. And welcome to both of you.
BLAKE FARMER: Thank You.
MICHAEL DINWIDDIE: Thank you very much Jennifer.
LUDDEN: Mayor Dinwiddie, let me start with you. First congratulations, I understand you were just selected about a month ago.
DINWIDDIE: Yes m'am. April the 20th I was sworn in.
LUDDEN: Well, your big new challenge here, right of the bat. Tell me a bit about Spring Hill first. How big is it? And who lives there?
DINWIDDIE: It's a smaller town. It's going to be a young town. We've got 25,000 people there and most of that has come just in the last 20 years or so if that...
LUDDEN: How integral is the General Motors plant to the town?
DINWIDDIE: The town exists because of the plant. Before the plant came we had less than a thousand people that lived in the city. And because of that plant, that plant kind of spurred all of the growth that has happened to us in the past.
LUDDEN: And you said most have come in the last five years?
DINWIDDIE: Between the last five and ten years most of our population has come in. In 2003 we had just under 14,000 people. 2009 we have over 25,000. That growth is not due to the GM plant but the GM plant way back in the mid 80s is what put Spring Hill on the maps so to speak in it. It's kind of a forerunner to all of this growth that we've seen.
LUDDEN: Well, I am wondering there is people there worry that if GM files for bankruptcy next week some of that growth is going to stop or jobs will be lost?
DINWIDDIE: Yeah I think there is an underlying tension in the city right now. I think our biggest - the biggest impact for the city is going to be from a revenue standpoint: sales tax revenues are probably going to drop, some of our local businesses may suffer because of a lack of a patronage from the GM employees. I think that's going be a big concern as we go forward.
LUDDEN: Blake Farmer let me bring you in here. You covered the auto industry there. Remind us why was Spring Hill chosen as the site for the General Motors first of it the Saturn plant back in the mid 80s right?
FARMER: Right like what the mayor said GM really put Spring Hill on the map. There wasn't a whole lot there except some rolling farm land. And Spring Hill was chosen because Saturn was supposed to be a different brand. The tag line was something like different kind of Car Company, different kind of car. They chose an area that was outside of the Rustbelt, outside Detroit, outside of Ohio and typical places where GM plants are because this plant was going to be totally revolutionary for GM. It was there answer to the Japanese fuel efficient cars. They had a totally different operating agreement with the United Auto Workers, different kind of pay plan, you know, a whole different kind of corporate culture and they built a different kind of car that was different from any other car within GM and it is no longer like that.
LUDDEN: And what was the turning point? What if because they really worked there for while right?
FARMER: It did work for a while. They got raved up in mid the 80s, started the first car was off the line in 1990 a little fuel efficient four door and they were selling like hot cakes for a while so much so that the factory essentially was selling itself out for a couple of years in the mid 90s. And - you're going to different folks who will pinpoint different factors that played into the demise of the brand ultimately. But they were selling tons of cars, more than 300,000.
And some of the folks who moved down here, in the group of 99 as they were called, to build this Saturn brand. You know, I have talked to them in recent weeks and they'll say you know, Saturn really, as they built it, died, you know, several years ago. Those say that GM did not invest in bringing them new brand - new models to put out and they didn't invest in expanding the plant like they had promised to do originally.
LUDDEN: They kind of got behind the curve, designing SUVs and so forth.
FARMER: Precisely. Yeah. Their first SUV didn't hit the road until 2002 I believe. And at that point they were really behind the curve like you said.
LUDDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the impact of the possible General Motors bankruptcy on one American town. Our guest, reporter Blake Farmer is in member station WPLN in Nashville and Michael Dinwiddie, the mayor of Spring Hill, Tennessee. Mayor Dinwiddie Spring Hill has already taken one hit. In 2007 GM moved its Saturn production out of Spring Hill after all the hoopla of picking that site specifically, it then moved production to Mexico. What has that meant for your town?
DINWIDDIE: Well it's - I guess it's bitter sweet, we hate to see the Saturn go, there was a lot of pride attached to that product. But you know, GM did spend over billion dollar retooling that plant. And to make that plant the most advanced plant in the country in my opinion, and so we were fortunate enough to bring another product in, the Chevy Traverse which we are making now. And that period of shut down was a slow time in our city's growth and it's probably what we needed at the time because we were growing very quickly. And we needed to slow down and take a break, so that - we're fortunate to have a product in there.
LUDDEN: You needed to slow down or is that just a way of kind of - I mean you don't hear elected officials usually saying we need to slow down.
DINWIDDIE: Well in this case we truly did. We grew so fast that we got ahead of our infrastructure as a city - our water, our sewer, our roads were all starting to fall behind. We had a city of - approaching 20,000 at the time, and we (unintelligible) of a say, of five to seven thousand person city. So we truly did need to slow down from an infrastructure stand point. Now from a revenue stand point, we certainly don't ever want to slow down.
LUDDEN: Right, and you did lose several thousand jobs there. I mean, you said the Chevy Traverse is being made there, but as I understand the plant is far, far from capacity. What happened to those lost jobs? Have people found other things to do in the area? Have they left the area?
DINWIDDIE: I don't really know. I think probably a lot of them have left the area but I don't have any good information for you on that. The plant is operating. There's about 3,000 people in the plant right now. At full capacity it could be upwards around 7,000, so we definitely have room to add more workforce there.
LUDDEN: Blake Farmer, if GM does file for bankruptcy what will you be watching for? What kind of impact will you be watching for there in the Spring Hill area?
FARMER: Well the impact will definite - the first call will be to the plant to figure out if they're on that list and there's lot of ringing of hands going on right now. the Union President, the local UAW, the local 1853, has told has told folks that really he believes that if this is up to a coin flip in Detroit or in Washington, probably more likely in Washington, that you know, Spring Hill even though it has been recently retooled as the mayor said, you know, a billion dollar spent to make this a flexible plant that can build multiple vehicles. It's still pretty far outside of GM's typical footprint. And so the union president Michael Rourke(ph)says its really a coin flip. He is telling folks to pray for the best but plan for the worst, and that's really what I've seen in talking with folks who work on the factory line and you know it's lining those jobs, something to fall back on, whether or not they've got an extended that they are going to be off or if the plant closes, in some way, permanently. Now, a question I believe the mayor has been looking into is whether or not there are other options for this plant, you know, if GM does decides to shut it down, would another automaker decide they'd like to pick it up. We definitely have a big auto presence these days in Tennessee with Volkswagen moving into Chattanooga, Nissan nearby in Smyrna, Tennessee - so that there are a lot of options out there.
LUDDEN: I understand there has also been some speculation that politics could come into play in determining whether or not to shut down that plant. And I've read that people have said well Tennessee voted red last fall and Michigan towns are competing for these plants and they went blue. Does anyone think that's really going to be a factor?
FARMER: I don't know, it might be a question for the Mayor.
DINWIDDIE: Well, I hope it's not a factor. Our goal here is to protect the longevity or the long term viability of General Motors, which is - it would be a shame to see, it is a shame to see that company going through the troubles that it's going through. It's one of the companies that had largely shaped this country. So, it's... You know to see this as anything but a business decision to me is unfortunate. I hope it doesn't come down to petty politics. For GM to lose that plan I think would be detrimental to its long term viability. And I also think, not only losing it but allowing their competition access to North America's most advanced auto plant. I don't see how it's good business decision at all.
LUDDEN: Michael Dinwiddie is the mayor of Spring Hill, Tennessee. It used to be the home of General Motors Saturn production line. The plant now builds the Chevy Traverse. Blake Farmer is a reporter from the NPR member station in Nashville and covers the areas auto industry. Both joined me from member station WPLN in Nashville. Thanks so very much to both of you.
FARMER: You're welcome.
DINWIDDIE: Thank you.
LUDDEN: And remember, at TELL ME MORE, the conversation never ends. Now we would like to hear from you. If you own the Saturn are you sorry to see that line of cars end. If you own a GM or another American car, are you worried that your car company troubles could mean trouble for you and your vehicle. What does the future hold American cars and the people who build them? To tell us more, please call our comment line at 202-842-3522 - again, that's 202-842- 3522. Or you can share your story on our blog, just go to npr.org, click no the TELL ME MORE page and blog it out.