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Late bid to save St. Paul Ford plant

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The St. Paul Ford assembly plant is reportedly on the list for possible closure by the company. Gov. Pawlenty met with Ford executives Wednesday in a bid to keep the plant open, and save its 2,000 jobs. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
Gov. Tim Pawlenty traveled to Michigan Wednesday to meet with senior Ford Motor Co. executives on the future of the company's St. Paul plant. Published reports last month said the St. Paul plant was on a list of North American factories slated for closure. No specific commitments emerged from the meeting, but Pawlenty says the company is willing to work with Minnesota on some type of partnership.

St. Paul, Minn. — The governor, his economic development commissioner and chief of staff spent about an hour meeting with three top Ford officials, including executive vice president Anne Stevens.

Pawlenty says state officials didn't offer a package of incentives to try to keep the plant open, but instead proposed working with Ford, which has made a commitment to making hybrid vehicles.

"This industry and these plants are going to change. The model is changing, the model of the past is not going to be the model of the future," said Pawlenty. "And I think our time is better spent trying to figure out how do you facilitate that transition, rather than hang on to something that is looking backward rather than looking forward."

The St. Paul plant employs nearly 2,000 people, and makes the Ford Ranger pickup truck. Ranger sales dropped nearly 23 percent overall in 2005, although the decline slowed somewhat in December.

Pawlenty says Ford officials didn't talk specifically about the future of the Ranger pickup, but he says the signs aren't positive.

"They're producing a product at the St. Paul plant that is not finding increasing favor with the marketplace. And that's a reality that you can't gloss over, you can't paper over," said Pawlenty. "There's going to need to be a pivot point here in some fashion, and we just need to explore with Ford what that pivot point is."

Pawlenty says state officials told Ford that Minnesota is prepared to match incentives offered by other states.

According to a list compiled by the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, states have offered public incentives ranging from $12 million to more than $200 million for recent expansion or retooling projects at Ford plants across the country.

DEED commissioner Matt Kramer says Minnesota can't just throw money at Ford to keep the St. Paul plant open, but the state must figure out what Ford needs to be competitive. He says Minnesota's status as a leader in alternative fuels is an advantage.

"The future is alternative energy, and removing our country's dependency on foreign oil, and the social and political and defense ramifications that has. Ford was very intrigued by that, and I think their interest in that is going to be profound," said Kramer.

Ford could decide to convert the St. Paul plant into one that manufactures an alternative fuel vehicle. But that could take years, according to Fred Zimmerman, a manufacturing expert and retired engineering professor from the University of St. Thomas.

"That's quite a long-term thing. But I also think that Ford is doing a lot of work in that area anyway," said Zimmerman. "They're not amateurs, they've been working on hybrids and other fuel systems for a long period of time -- all those manufacturers have been. So they might be interested."

State officials say they'll continue to work with Ford, and Pawlenty says he'll also invite the state's congressional delegation to participate. Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton has been calling for a bipartisan team of elected officials, business and labor representatives to lobby Ford to keep the plant open.

Ford had little to say after the meeting. A spokesperson said in a statement that the company "meets regularly with local officials from its plant communities, and open communication is important."

Ford will release details of its restructuring plan on Jan. 23, 2006.