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In Ohio, Lordstown Residents Are Living In Uncertainty With GM Plant Set To Close

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

GM stops making the Chevy Cruze next month. That means a sprawling assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio, created to build the Cruze will fall silent. Just a skeleton crew will be left after thousands have lost their jobs. And as M.L. Schultze reports, Lordstown is living with an uncertainty these days that many residents say is downright cruel.

M L SCHULTZE, BYLINE: The Monday after Thanksgiving, GM called workers here into a meeting to say it was shutting down production of the fuel-efficient, highly rated but poorly selling Chevy Cruze. Lordstown and four other plants would become unallocated. Rachelle Dezee, who represents workers who maintain the 6-million-square-foot plant, says the reaction was gasps, tears and then...

RACHELLE DEZEE: We all went right back to work because we're Lordstown. And that's what Lordstown does. We work.

SCHULTZE: But change is coming to Lordstown, perhaps as dramatically as it did 53 years ago, when GM transformed 1,100 acres near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border into a state-of-the-art assembly plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The promise of a new day for the community really sinks in - new jobs, new careers, new opportunities.

SCHULTZE: November's announcement told a starkly different story. And in the months since, workers, suppliers, families, school and government leaders have been trying to figure out what the word unallocated means. Is GM really done with Lordstown? Or is a new product still a possibility? Local UAW chief Dave Green says along with residents here, workers are in limbo.

DAVE GREEN: Right. There's no, you're closing. Move on. There's no, there's another product coming. You got to wait. It's just, wait. Wait. Wait.

SCHULTZE: School board member Jackie Woodward shares his frustration.

JACKIE WOODWARD: It's cruel to do that to people's lives.

SCHULTZE: Dave Harrison has worn every hat here in Lordstown from police officer to planning director.

DAVE HARRISON: The suspense - and it's the uncertainty. But it's still a glimmer of hope.

SCHULTZE: But that glimmer can be hard to see, especially at shift change.

HARRISON: When General Motors was at its peak, we had 14,000 employees that came into our village every day. You don't know when it's shift change anymore.

SCHULTZE: With GM came water, sewer, police, parks, schools. Now even with attempts to diversify, the village is facing a loss of as much as a third of its budget. GM has offered workers transfers to other plants. More than 300 families are moving to Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana. The school district figures that 15 percent of its students could be gone by year's end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Kaylynn is currently with the basketball team. She is escorted by Renee...

SCHULTZE: That's why Lordstown moved its ceremony to honor senior athletes up to January - so those parents could escort their sons and daughters. Kaylynn Higinbotham was among them. Her grandfather worked at the assembly plant. Her father Joe followed.

KAYLYNN HIGINBOTHAM: That's how everybody knows Lordstown is GM. Like, you hear about Lordstown. And you're like, oh. That's where the GM plant is. Like...

SCHULTZE: Her parents built a house on 18 acres five minutes from the plant. They sweated the Great Recession and GM bankruptcy. But Kaylynn's mom Renee says the auto bailout and launch of the Cruze gave them confidence.

RENEE HIGINBOTHAM: We were just like, great. Now we'll be here the rest of our lives in Lordstown. We're not going anywhere - until November 26, 2018 hit. And now we have to leave.

SCHULTZE: Her husband leaves for Spring Hill, Tenn., in two weeks. Renee will stay with the four kids until Kaylynn graduates. Meanwhile, there's an odd twist for those already laid off from the assembly plant. For a few more weeks, GM is still making the Cruze. So it's recalled hundreds of laid off workers. And that poses something of a Catch-22. Many of the workers started back to school. If they go back to work, they lose part of their retraining money. If they don't, they lose extended health benefits.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) We love GM. We love GM.

SCHULTZE: The communities launched a campaign, joined by everyone from Ohio's governor to a middle school choir, to try to convince GM that Lordstown deserves to build a new vehicle. A few weeks ago, the Drive It Home campaign went to the Detroit Auto Show, where Lordstown worker Crystal Carpenter got her first look at the new Chevy Blazer. It's made in Mexico. She was not impressed.

CRYSTAL CARPENTER: The fits - they were all off. We could've made that car. There was no big deal about taking this and saying that Lordstown couldn't do it.

SCHULTZE: When steel collapsed in the Mahoning Valley 40 years ago, GM Lordstown became the thread of economic hope. Now the valley is waiting to see if unallocated is a corporate euphemism for another body blow to the region. For NPR News, I'm M.L. Schultze in Lordstown, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF HI-TEK AND AYAK'S "CAN WE GO BACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.