The man President Obama has named to help places hit hard by massive job losses in the U.S. auto industry visited a place Friday that has long been symbolic of such decline — Flint, Mich.
Ed Montgomery is in charge of the White House Office of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers. In Flint, he toured a General Motors plant slated to build engines for the automaker's new Volt plug-in electric vehicle starting next year.
But the city also provides a vivid real-world example of just how big a job it will be to stage a recovery.
They started building cars in Flint more than 100 years ago. It used to be called Buick City. But today you could describe Flint as ground zero for the decline of American manufacturing.
They do still build autos in Flint — trucks, engines and transmissions.
That's what they were doing when President Obama's auto recovery czar toured the Flint Engine South plant on Bristol Road.
Among those on the plant tour was Duane Zuckschwerdt, a onetime Flint autoworker and now the United Auto Workers' regional director here. He recalled what this town once was.
"In the late '70s early '80s, there was 80,000 GM workers. Currently, we've got 6,100. That doesn't count the job loss from the supplier-base side," he said.
The entourage that accompanied Montgomery from Washington on this trip included representatives from the departments of Commerce, Transportation, Labor and Treasury as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. But it was Montgomery who spoke to reporters following the tour.
"We recognize that the state has been hit hard; we recognize that Flint has an unemployment rate I think over 15 percent now. ... So, what I want to hear from people on the ground is how we can help you," Montgomery said.
Montgomery stressed he was here to listen. His two-day tour of the state included a Thursday visit to a parts supplier in Grand Rapids that is working to diversify. Friday afternoon, the Montgomery task force also stopped at GM's engineering and design headquarters in Warren.
In Flint, there is great concern about the fate of GM. The White House could force the company to reorganize through bankruptcy — a path rival Chrysler is already taking. There is real worry that those auto jobs that remain in the city could be swept away.
No one knows what GM will look like when the process is complete. But everyone knows it will be a much smaller company with far fewer workers.
In Flint, of course, this is a very old story. In an auditorium at the local community college, Montgomery heard from elected officials, community and union leaders, economic development organizations, and others.
Each made the case that despite its troubles, Flint is a place with much to offer.
"Flint has great assets. And one of those assets is a trained work force. These are men and women that know the value of a good day's work. They know that," said Woodrow Stanley, who represents Flint in the state House of Representatives.
As for the difficulty presented by the task of turning around a city like Flint, Stanley asked the team from Washington to look at it this way:
"If it can work here in Flint, I guarantee that you can replicate it around this country."
Montgomery nodded. He knows that "making it work in Flint" may be the toughest part of the monumental task he has been given.