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GM Workers In Lordstown, Ohio, Get Some Good News

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's some promising news for a town that's had a rough year. General Motors closed the Chevy assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, earlier this year, forcing workers to either move or look for new jobs. Now, though, an international joint venture is coming to Lordstown, as well as a startup with big plants. M.L. Schultze reports.

ML SCHULTZE, BYLINE: Darwin Cooper is sitting in the lunch room of the largely deserted local union hall here in Lordstown, waiting for the furnace repair guy. He's retired, and these days retirees are about all Local 1112 has left. After GM closed its massive assembly plant here, more than a thousand members moved to other plants or went job-hunting locally, so recent news that two new tech projects will launch here is, in a word, bittersweet. The project's promised 1,500 jobs, but Cooper notes the GM plant alone once employed 14,000.

DARWIN COOPER: People are coming in here every day. They're hurt, and families are split up. I mean, we're hopeful. We want the battery plant. We want it to be part of our local union. But we know it won't be the full wages that the automakers pay, but it's work. It's somebody's job, and that's important.

SCHULTZE: That electric car battery plant he's talking about is a $2.3 billion joint venture of GM and South Korea's LG Chem. Commercial realtor Dan Crouse is pretty sure he knows where it will locate.

DAN CROUSE: So we're coming up here right now on what was, 15 years ago, General Motors property.

SCHULTZE: Crouse drives his Chevy Tahoe past hundreds of acres of open fields, circles the block and points to a similar spread a mile west. Either, he says, are perfect sites.

CROUSE: Now we've got an uninterrupted power supply. We've got a battery company. We've got a lot of those things that are becoming the future, if you will. And they're happening right here.

SCHULTZE: Still, many here are, at best, cautiously optimistic. That's because of the 6.2 million square feet of empty concrete and steel in between those open fields. Long gone is the two-story banner touting the site as the home of the Chevy Cruze. Only a dozen lonely cars now sit in a vast lot built for tens of thousands, a reminder of decades of industrial decline. But that plant is also the second piece of the electric vehicle plan unfolding here. Last month GM sold the factory for about $20 million to an electric vehicle startup called Lordstown Motors. Steve Burns says his new company has big plans to build electric pickup trucks.

STEVE BURNS: This is our headquarters. I think it's the first time that the Lordstown area will be charged with their own destiny.

SCHULTZE: GM also is backing the new startup with up to $50 million in loans. Spokesman Jim Cain says GM had other offers, but...

JIM CAIN: Of all the different expressions of interest we had in the facility, they were the one we thought had the best chance to restore vehicle production to the site.

SCHULTZE: Still, the deal also includes a hitch. GM can buy back the plant by May if things aren't working out. The electric vehicle market faces challenges, including the loss this month of a tax credit meant to spur sales. Still, GM will introduce about a dozen EV models, and it hopes the batteries built by its venture with LG will be cheaper and last longer. Both the battery venture and Lordstown Motors say they hope to start production by 2021. In the world of car manufacturing, those timeframes are ambitious. Monica Hoskins-Vann owns a small insurance company nearby. She says the entire community needs to see now that the projects are real. Everyone here seems to feel every economic tremor.

MONICA HOSKINS-VANN: Everything has to do with, can I take care of my family? It's one thing to live check to check. It's something else to live check to Tuesday.

SCHULTZE: But if the funding and jobs and training do become reality, she says this part of Ohio will be incredibly loyal to its new employers.

HOSKINS-VANN: One thing that the Mahoning Valley really does is they support companies that come here. Lordstown was here. GM cars - everybody here drives GM.

SCHULTZE: And if making electric trucks and batteries takes hold here, she says that loyalty will extend beyond a single company to a whole new technology.

For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.