GM plant closing tears at Ohio community

When General Motors, the biggest employer in town, laid off 400 workers in December, it was like a boulder falling into a very small pond.

April and Rick Allison lost their jobs stamping out doors and other car parts. They plan to leave to find work.

Their departure means their landlord, Angelo Sorrenti, is worried about his business, so he's holding off buying a new pickup.

That hurts Graham's Auto Mall, which has laid off sales manager Steve Brown.

Now Brown can't make his regular contribution to the United Way.

The United Way has reduced donations to charities such as Friendly House's after-school and summer program for low-income children.

Friendly House is increasing its summer day camp fees. Single mom Pamela Hall worries if that keeps up, her 9-year-old daughter Courtney will have to stay home.

The struggles facing the people of Ontario and its neighboring communities show how the 400 layoffs ripple far beyond the gates of the GM plant, where 860 people still work. The stories reveal how job losses at a plant tear the web that binds the workers and their neighbors.

And Ontario is just one of 12 cities facing the bleak prospect that its GM plant will shut down in the next two years.

President Obama promises a stronger, healthier future for the restructured GM and Chrysler, but the White House acknowledges that it means downsizing. For Ontario and its 5,200 residents, already under strain, downsizing means losing the remaining 860 jobs.

"Something like this can devastate a little town," says Kim Hill, assistant director of research at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

More layoffs will ripple across Richland County, where the recession already has led to a 13.1% jobless rate, well above the state's 11.1% and the nation's 9.5%. Situated between Cleveland and Columbus, the county's biggest community is Mansfield, an industrial city next to Ontario with a population of 50,000.

Ontario, a mix of farms and newly built suburban mini-McMansion subdivisions, has grown into a retail hub for the county with shopping strips and big-box stores. That's largelythanks to the GM plant.

Hill says that for every job cut at a stamping plant like the one here, three more could be lost as the facility no longer buys supplies or hires contractors for services, such as cleaning; retailers and restaurants see fewer customers; and local government receives less tax revenue.

Ontario officials are bracing for big drops in income and property taxes as jobs disappear and people leave. The largest chunk of the city of Ontario's revenue, about 44%, comes from a tax on wages. Revenue from the 1% tax — $3.7 million last year — goes toward police, street repair and other services, Mayor Ken Bender says.

About 40% of that tax was a product of jobs at the GM plant. This year, even before the plant shuts down, the city expects to collect at least $300,000 less.

Bender says the plant closing will have "a catastrophic effect" on the police force and other services. Already, the city has laid off eight people from a workforce of 56, including two police officers and two dispatchers.

Bender doesn't know how bad it will get, but he says less revenue and more layoffs are likely.

Politicians and area residents are petitioning GM to keep the plant open, but the company says the closing is final.

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