Life after Ford


The Ford plant
The Ford Assembly Plant in St. Paul has been a fixture of the city's Highland neighborhood since 1924. (MPR Photo/Bob Collins)

It's hard to deny the symbolic and historic impact of closing the Ford plant. Since its specially-built hydroelectric dam on the Mississippi started producing electricity in 1924, the plant has been a steady economic engine in the western part of St. Paul. In the words of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, the plant has offered "marquis jobs," with good health benefits, a pension, and salaries near $56,000 a year -- and no college degree required. For many workers, jobs at the Ford plant have been a family tradition.

But stepping back from the Highland Park neighborhood, it's not clear Minnesota is facing lasting economic damage.

"In that macro-economic sense, it is a fairly small event, especially given the advance notice we have," according to Steve Hine, the top labor market analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The loss of the Ford plant seems less dramatic next to the daily movement of Minnesotans into and out of jobs. According to state filings for unemployment claims, 10,500 people are permanently -- though much more quietly -- laid off from their jobs each month. The workforce at the Ford plant numbers slightly less than 1,900.

"Within manufacturing, we see layoffs of this magnitude happening on a regular basis," according to Hine. "Statewide, economy-wide, we do see that number of people being separated permanently from work each week."

Hine says jobs are added to the economy at a similar pace. And while the state has lost a net of about 1,800 jobs in manufacturing over the past year, Hine says it no longer looks like a sector in decline.

Despite some recent turmoil, the state's medical device sector is still a bright spot, as are wood product and fabricated metal manufacturing. By the time the Ford layoffs take effect in two years, many experts expect baby-boomer retirements to be fueling a labor shortage.

While this big picture may be of some comfort, it may offer little reassurance to the Ford workers themselves, and it doesn't suggest a way forward for the Ford plant site. Officials and agencies that have been deeply invested in saving the plant and its jobs have yet to form a coherent new strategy or message.

One key agency in rehabbing and perhaps sculpting a new future for the Ford site will be the St. Paul Port Authority. But spokesman Tom Collins says the Port Authority does not view the site as an economic development opportunity.

"We haven't been asked to do anything as far as looking at what the Ford site might be used for other than trying to keep Ford at that particular site. We are, as is everybody else, intensely concerned about the welfare of the workers there. There have been no efforts by the Port Authority at this point, nor have we been asked to take a look at what could be there if Ford decides to leave," according to Collins.

The decision to shut the plant down is final, at least according to Ford. But Gov. Pawlenty, on his Friday radio show, seemed reluctant to give up.

"While we hold out for trying to reconvince them during these two years, and we'll continue to have dialog to keep the plant open, we also have to work aggressively toward transitioning the workers, training the workers toward a new career a new future for them," he said.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and his top economic development officials could not be reached for comment. But Coleman said after company's announcement that a Ford plant might not be all that city officials can envision.

"There's opportunity for light manufacturing or some life-science potential to come into that corridor. Clearly the value for the property for housing is going to be very, very strong, depending on the environmental conditions around the site," he said.

Unknowns like the amount of environmental cleanup and Ford's own intentions for the site will shape the future of both the site and a neighborhood that's home to some of the city's most expensive housing. Some city officials speculated quietly on Friday that Ford might not sell the site at all if its environmental liability were too high. That could be a frustrating obstacle as officials do, eventually, turn their attention to what comes next.

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