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Fenton Chrysler plants to close

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(UPI file photo/Bill Greenblatt)
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By Adam Allington, KWMU

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/kwmu/local-kwmu-834930.mp3

St. Louis – Thursday's announcement that Chrysler is filing for bankruptcy has major implications for the St. Louis region.

Both of Chrysler's assembly plants in suburban Fenton are scheduled to close permanently by the end of next year, marking the end of yet another well-known brand manufactured in St. Louis.

The announcement from President Obama about Chrysler filing chapter 11 had a whole lot of bad news couched in a few reasons to hope.

"Now no one should be confused about what a bankruptcy process means," said Obama. "This is not a sign of weakness but rather one more step on a clearly charted path to Chrysler's revival."

The president says the bankruptcy filing, together with a possible joint venture with Fiat, will allow the company to forge ahead as a leaner, more nimble enterprise.

That news is hollow consolation to the 1,000 workers at Chrysler's north plant, which will close down next year. Auto industry analyst Laurie Harbour-Felax says the outlook for Fenton was never good.

"Right now Chrysler has three plants making the Ram pickup and pickups aren't selling," said Harbour-Felax.

The Dodge Ram is also made at Detroit's Warren Truck Plant as well as a plant in Saltillo, Mexico. Felax says the market for trucks is still down on concerns about future high gas prices, but there may yet be a buyer for the Chrysler truck plant.

"I think the truck business is probably an asset that is very valuable to some other manufacturer, like a Nissan for example who might be interested in buying the assets including the plants," noted Harbour-Felax.

News of the plant closures broke late Thursday evening. Don Ackerman is the vice president of UAW Local 136 which serves the north truck plant. He said he still hasn't received a phone call from Detroit.

"It's going to be totally devastating to this membership, to this community," said Ackerman.

"Its really hard to comment on right now because I have not notified officially of anything that's going on and I'm still waiting on a phone call to try to find out all the specifics."

There are some that would say Chrysler has been on its way out of St. Louis for years now. Chrysler closed its Fenton south plant last year, which at one time employed 3,200 workers making Dodge and Chrysler minivans.

Frank Lockhart, 51, is one hundreds of workers who took an early retirement buyout offer rather than run the risk of future layoffs. Before starting at Chrysler in 1995, Lockhart worked for Anheuser-Busch and Pevely Dairy, his bad knees and shoulders the price for a career spent in manufacturing.

Even though he would have liked to retire with Chrysler, Lockhart says he's still optimistic that there is a new job out there for him.

"I think I'll have a job one way another...with what I know about manufacturing and everything else, I'm sure there's a job out there for me somewhere and if not, maybe if someone has some possibilities or thoughts I'd love to hear from them," said Lockhart.

Like Lockhart, Bryan Gilmore is another former Chrysler worker who's now considering other options. Gilmore started working on the assembly line in his 20's.
"I've been there 14 years as of April 24th. The last year and half I've been laid off," remarked Gilmore.

These days Gilmore is working on a different kind of line. He's gone back to school at L'Ecole Culinaire in Clayton for a degree in culinary arts.

President Obama said that the Chrysler reorganization represents a new lease on life for the struggling company. Meanwhile, workers at the nearby GM plant in Wentzville have until the end of May to put together their own restructuring plan or risk bankruptcy as well.

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