Reeling from its financial problems and a collapsing SUV market, General Motors on Tuesday closed its factories in Janesville, Wis., and in Moraine, Ohio, marking the passing of an era when big sport utilities ruled the road.
JANESVILLE, Wis. — Even a federal bailout could not save three of the last remaining plants in the United States still making sport-utility vehicles (SUVs).
Reeling from its financial problems and a collapsing SUV market, General Motors on Tuesday closed its factories in Janesville, Wis., and in Moraine, Ohio, marking the passing of an era when big sport utilities ruled the road. The moves followed the shutdown last Friday of Chrysler’s factory in Newark, Del., which produced full-size SUVs.
The last Chevrolet Tahoe rolled off the line here in Janesville shortly after 7 a.m. in the 90-year-old plant, which had built more than 3.7 million big SUVs since the early 1990s.
Most of the plant’s 1,100 remaining workers were not scheduled to work the final day, but many showed up for an emotional closing ceremony.
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Dan Doubleday, who had 22 years on the job, broke down in the plant’s snowy parking lot afterward. “I was a forklift driver,” he said, glancing at his watch through welling tears. “Until about seven minutes ago.”
At the Mocha Moment coffee shop around the corner, co-workers Michael Berberich and Lisa Gonzalez exchanged Christmas presents just as they had most years since they were both hired in 1986. “For a while we had it made,” Gonzalez said. “I just wish it would have lasted.”
The fate of the Janesville, Moraine and Newark plants was sealed this spring, when rising gas prices suddenly made SUVs unpopular — long before President Bush approved $17.4 billion in emergency loans last week to keep GM and Chrysler out of bankruptcy.
While the overall new-vehicle market has dropped 16 percent so far this year, sales of big SUVs have plummeted 40 percent.
With consumers shifting rapidly to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, GM no longer needed to produce big SUVs in Janesville as well as in a plant in Texas.
Still, some Janesville workers felt GM broke a pledge in its 2007 contract with the United Automobile Workers to keep the factory running.
“We didn’t deserve this,” said John Dohner Jr., shop chairman at UAW Local 95. “We’ve all put a lot of hard work into trying to secure a future here.”
Shrinking market shares have forced GM, Chrysler and Ford to close more than a dozen assembly plants and shed tens of thousands of workers in recent years. That has devastated communities from Georgia to New Jersey and from Michigan to Oklahoma.
Even so, GM and Chrysler are likely to close more manufacturing facilities as they overhaul operations to meet conditions of the federal loans.
“The companies are moving very fast now to close plants, but it may be too little, too late,” said John Casesa, a principal in the Casesa Shapiro Group, a consulting firm. “They’re doing now what they should have done 15 or 20 years ago.”
GM’s Moraine plant was the last to build the midsize Chevrolet Blazers and GMC Envoys that were once among the best-selling vehicles in the country.
The Janesville factory built three of the biggest and most profitable vehicles in GM’s lineup, the Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban and GMC Yukon. The Chrysler plant in Newark also made big SUVs — the Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen.
Their closings leave the Big Three with only one factory each still devoted to making traditional big SUVs — Ford in Kentucky, GM in Texas and Chrysler in Detroit.
The Janesville plant once employed more than 5,000 workers and turned out 20,000 Tahoes, Yukons and Suburbans each month. With its closing, residents worried about the future of this city of 64,000 people, about 75 miles southwest of Milwaukee.
“Janesville will lose a lot,” said Patti Homan, as she finished a strawberry-topped waffle at the nearby Eagle Inn restaurant. “I expect my electricity to go up, water rates to go up, property taxes to go up, and the value of my home to go down.”
Homan worked in the plant for 23 years, and her father, brother and husband all retired from the factory. “It’s generation after generation for so many families here,” she said.
The closing of an auto plant draws a crowd, with some people somber and nostalgic and others defiant and energized.
Outside the Janesville plant on Tuesday, a few workers posed for pictures in front of the building while others said their goodbyes as they loaded gear in their snow-covered SUVs
Many of the workers trudged over to a one-story, cinder-block building on the grounds of the factory, a bar called the Zoxx 411 Club. A sign said “customers only” and forbade reporters and media from entering.
Outside, a cluster of reporters, including a documentary film crew from Japan, tried to interview workers about the last days of the SUV plant.
“It’s been a good ride, man,” said Frank Hereford, a body-shop worker, as he left the plant with a microwave oven that heated up countless lunches during many of his 38 years with GM.
“Good people worked down here.”