GM shutdown puts damper on holiday for thousands

Saturday, November 26th 2005, 12:54 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ General Motors' announcement that it was closing its Oklahoma City assembly plant put a damper on the Thanksgiving holiday for thousands of Oklahomans.

Last Monday's news from Detroit came seven months after Gov. Brad Henry led an ``Oklahomans Love GM'' rally at the Capitol and about three months after Henry met with GM officials to make sure the state was doing everything it could to keep the plant open.

``General Motors was on our watch list from day one,'' Paul Sund, spokesman for Henry, said of efforts made to retain the plant, which employs 2,200 and has been operating in Oklahoma City since 1979.

The ``love'' showed by state officials and others at an April 22 rally in the governor's Blue Room has turned to anger for many GM employees and some legislators, who say the state is the victim of corporate deceit.

State Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, fired off a statement blaming ``extremely poor leadership at the top,'' along with high fuel costs, for the planned closing early next year.

``Stuck on stupid,'' is how one veteran employee described the decision a few years ago to start making sport utility vehicles in Oklahoma City, instead of more economical cars.

``There is little General Motors could say or do to prove to the working families of Oklahoma that the company did not purposely deceive them in recent months about their predetermined fate,'' Leftwich said.

All that company praise for high production and the concessions made by workers now seem meaningless, complained members of the United Auto Workers.

Leftwich has asked the Senate staff to compile all incentives offered the automaker. She said Oklahoma has given GM millions of dollars in tax breaks over the last 25 years and ``we need to make sure they don't skip town owing taxpayers anything.''

Henry called GM ``a great corporate citizen'' back in April and has shunned any criticism of the company, whose decision to locate in the capital city three decades ago is credited with raising salaries throughout the economy of central Oklahoma.

The governor, known for his optimism, says he will continue to urge GM to change its mind, while adding he has not been given an inkling that is a possibility.

He also says there may be something that Congress can do to help GM that might forestall the closing.

But those possibilities are considered remote, state officials concede privately.

In the meantime, Henry has formed a task force of agency officials to determine what can be done to aid employees displaced by the shutdown.

One question that needs to be answered if GM departs is what the company plans to do with the huge facility.

Persuading another company to buy the plant could be one of the options for the future, officials say.

Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin suggests the plant could be a perfect setting for the aerospace industry because of its location along Interstate 240 adjacent to Tinker Air Force Base.

Scott Meacham, state treasurer, cabinet secretary and Henry's top financial adviser, said the state's economy remains strong and he does not believe the closing would trigger a recession.

Ironically, high fuel prices blamed in part for the plant's fate have been a significant factor in the state's economic climb the last couple of years.

The loss of GM will be a major blow to the Mid Del School District, which received $3.5 million in property and personal taxes from the company in 2005. Oklahoma City got $738,000, Rose State College, $963,000 and Oklahoma County, $1.3 million.

Among the millions of dollars in tax breaks granted GM over the years are incentives approved in 2000 that helped the plant retool and a property tax exemption approved in 2003 to aid in rebuilding the facility after it was heavily damaged by a tornado.

Henry said he and other officials have continually asked GM what else the state could do to keep the Oklahoma City plant afloat.

Sund said the governor initiated a meeting with GM officials this past August to discuss the plant's status.

``Their response was, 'We don't need anything else. Your plant is doing a great job. You guys are doing a great job.'''