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Published: Thursday, 5/26/2011

President to visit area Chrysler site

Plant location, reason for trip not yet known

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
President Obama visited a Detroit Chrysler plant in July and one in Indiana in November. President Obama visited a Detroit Chrysler plant in July and one in Indiana in November.
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President Obama is to visit a Chrysler Group LLC plant in metro Toledo on June 3, the White House announced Wednesday.

The reason for the visit, the location, and time were not specified by a White House official. He said final details were being arranged with Chrysler.

A Chrysler spokesman would confirm only that the President would visit one of the Toledo-area plants and that top Chrysler executives would be on hand to greet him.

Signs point to the visit being at the automaker's Toledo Assembly complex, where Jeep Wrangler, Jeep Liberty, and Dodge Nitro vehicles are made. But the stop could be at the Toledo Machining Plant in Perrysburg Township. Industry experts anticipate both facilities soon will receive large investments from Chrysler.

The visit would be the third by President Obama to a Chrysler manufacturing facility in the region within the last 12 months. He visited the Detroit factory that makes Jeep Grand Cherokees in July and the Kokomo, Ind., transmission plant in November.

The stop by Mr. Obama could signal that Chrysler is ready to announce its much-anticipated plans for its Toledo Assembly complex.

The company has not yet announced its long-term plans for the complex, the newest and most flexible assembly facility in the firm's production portfolio, but Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler's chief executive officer, said in January that he expected to make an announcement here "within six months." The company has announced more than $3 billion in additional investments in its manufacturing plants in North America since it emerged from bankruptcy in June, 2009.

This week, work crews were spotted taking deep soil borings, an early indication of site preparation work, in the complex's southern parking lot, which can be seen from the southbound lanes of I-75.

The Jeep Liberty is being re-engineered from its second-generation body style to ride on an all-new Fiat platform, which it ultimately will share with a number of other mid-sized vehicles across the automaker's product lineup.

The move to the Fiat-derived platform theoretically could allow a plant to manufacture several types of vehicles simultaneously.

Bethany McCorkle, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Development, declined to say whether the state is in discussions with Chrysler on incentives for an upgrade of its Toledo facilities.

"The Department of Development has ongoing dialogues with businesses on a daily basis," she said in a statement. "We still have a responsibility to honor our confidentiality commitments to those companies and their representatives."

City and other local development officials also refused to comment on whether the President's visit might herald new jobs locally, as did a spokesman for Gov. John Kasich.

At a news conference Tuesday, Mr. Kasich was asked about Chrysler and its repayment of its government loans. "Here's what I think about Chrysler: I'm glad that Bob Kidder is the chairman, I'm glad that he has ties to Ohio, and I want him to make more investment in our state. Period," Mr. Kasich said.

During an interview Wednesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the President is "going to go to Toledo next week to a Chrysler plant to help again underscore and help people understand the amount of restructuring that happened and why, not just the choices made, but … what management has brought to those companies should make Americans feel more confident in the underlying strength of the American worker, of the quality of American innovation, and what you can do as an American company. And even in this much more competitive world."

Toledo Assembly employs 2,500 workers, either Chrysler or on-site suppliers. The Wrangler plant at the complex was twice recognized by the prestigious Harbour Report as the most productive assembly plant in North America among all automakers.

Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12, said he didn't know whether Mr. Obama would be visiting UAW members at the Toledo Assembly complex, but he said they would warmly welcome the President.

"As Mr. Marchionne said this week, without President Obama and what he did to save Chrysler, many of us might be out of a job right now," Mr. Baumhower said. "So I think everyone would welcome the chance to say thank you in person, and to show him what we've done with the opportunity he gave us."

Mr. Baumhower said that workers at the Toledo Assembly Complex learned last week that they had tied with their colleagues in Belvidere, Ill., for the highest score in the United States on Chrysler's World Class Manufacturing point system. The Fiat-derived measurement system is used by Chrysler to score plant productivity and continuous improvement processes, and Chrysler executives consider it a key metric in their production decisions.

The President also could visit the automaker's Toledo Machining Plant in Perrysburg Township, which he last visited on a campaign stop just prior to his 2008 election.

The plant produces steering columns and torque converters for vehicles across Chrysler's product lineup.

Analysts believe the plant is due for an additional upgrade because Chrysler has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into improving its engine and transmission lineup but hasn't yet upgraded the torque converters that deliver those improvements efficiently to the automobile.

The President's visit to Chrysler's factories in Toledo also comes at an interesting time financially.

Chrysler celebrated its early repayment of $7.6 billion in loans taken out in 2009 from the United States, Canadian, and Ontario provincial governments on Tuesday during a ceremony at the automaker's Sterling Heights, Mich., Assembly Plant, which had been slated to close and just recently added a second shift of workers.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: lvellequette@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.



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