RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A story now closer to home. When General Motors shut down the Chevy Cruze plant in Lordstown, Ohio, the local community was devastated. But now that plant has a second life. It's home to an electric vehicle startup called Lordstown Motors. On Thursday, the company is publicly unveiling its first vehicle, the Endurance pickup truck. NPR's Camila Domonoske has this report on the past and future of one of America's most famous auto plants.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Frances Turnage started working at the GM plant in Lordstown in 1972, doing everything from assembly to welding.
FRANCES TURNAGE: I used to have to lay down in the cars with my feet dangling underneath, hooking up some wires.
DOMONOSKE: The work was hard, but the pay was good. Turnage witnessed the plant's heyday, when it was bustling with more than 10,000 workers. And over the decades, she saw a transformation.
TURNAGE: I looked around one day, and I saw a lot of the jobs were empty and were replaced with robots. It got lonely. And I actually would go in there and make fun and say, hey, how you doing, bro? Talking to the robots, you know, because that's all I had to talk to sometimes.
DOMONOSKE: She retired. But the plant, with fewer workers, was still a pillar of the local economy. Then GM announced it was killing the Chevy Cruze and shutting the Lordstown plant down. Workers were laid off or reassigned. Even those robots went idle. And Frances Turnage, she wept for everyone who had to move away and everyone who was left behind.
TURNAGE: Seemed like it was just another blow.
DOMONOSKE: So far, this is a familiar story in this part of Ohio. But it's not the end of the story. Those robots are powering back up as the plant prepares to make electric pickups for Lordstown Motors. Earlier this spring, Dan Tasiemski was coaxing a machine back to life.
DAN TASIEMSKI: It's a little finicky. It's sat, you know, for about a year and it's a little tired, you know? You get up in the morning, your joints aren't working too good.
DOMONOSKE: A lot of the tools designed to build the Chevy Cruze can be repurposed for the electric pickup. George Syrianoudis worked at the GM plant for 33 years. After it shut down, he was retired and running a coffee shop.
GEORGE SYRIANOUDIS: I was just sitting around and putting on a lot extra pounds.
DOMONOSKE: So now, he's back in the plant, testing out those old robots before reprogramming them.
SYRIANOUDIS: If something doesn't work, the nice thing is we have a lot of extra robots that we're not going to need.
DOMONOSKE: A huge chunk of the factory is dark, cold and empty, except for the occasional worker passing through on a bicycle. The full plant is bigger than a hundred football fields. And here's one really significant difference between Lordstown past and future - electric motors are much, much simpler to build than traditional engines. The Lordstown Motors truck uses four electric motors, one in each wheel. Here's CEO Steve Burns.
STEVE BURNS: It's almost as simple as, you know, putting on and tightening up the five lugs.
DOMONOSKE: That means easier maintenance and fewer workers. This sounds familiar to the auto industry, new technology meaning fewer people are required to make a vehicle. Still, Burns says he wants to hire former GM workers. And he hopes to expand production until he can fill this plant once again. For now, locals say they're optimistic. And even a small number of jobs will be better than an empty factory.
EARL ROSS JR: General Motors pulling out was terrible, lost half my business.
DOMONOSKE: Earl Ross Jr. runs an eatery and pub right across the street from the plant. He says Lordstown Motors coming in was like a rebirth.
ROSS: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, I'm seeing new faces, so brighter days ahead.
DOMONOSKE: Starting a new auto company is a tall order. And now, the company is launching during a recession. But the community around Lordstown is hoping that this will be a battery-powered success story in the end.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
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