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GM Idles Spring Hill Plant

Tennessee plant goes on standby Wednesday, turning away about 2,000 hourly employees who are laid off now that production of the Chevy Traverse has moved to Michigan.

SPRING HILL, Tenn. (AP) -- At its peak, about 7,800 people clocked in daily for work at the Saturn plant.

"Now we're down to 630 people," said Darren Tonoli, a General Motors employee of nearly three decades.

The plant goes on standby Wednesday, turning away about 2,000 hourly employees who are laid off now that production of the Chevrolet Traverse has moved to Michigan. Roughly the same number among local suppliers to General Motors are losing jobs.

Tonoli is among those with enough seniority to keep a job at the plant, manufacturing four-cylinder engines and several components for the corporation.

It's an unpleasant milestone for the plant, which produced its first vehicle -- a red, four-door Saturn sedan -- nearly 20 years ago.

Tonoli and co-worker John Gallegos say the mood has been strained over the past several weeks, especially as people with seniority have been transitioning into their new positions, working side by side with people who will soon be laid off.

"I'm there to fill their spot and they don't like it," Tonoli said. "I don't blame them at all."

"There's nothing we can do," Gallegos said. "We've got no control. And I don't want to move again."

Gallegos said he feels lucky to be able to stay but wonders how long it will last. He knows others who are moving elsewhere for work, some among the 840 jobs offered at the Lansing, Mich., plant. He said some plan to keep their families here with hopes that the economy improves before they try to sell their homes.

"I did that for five months when I moved here. That was hard enough," he said.

Gallegos said he and most of the employees are "GM gypsies" -- slang for workers who have transferred from other plants. Gallegos and Tonoli both worked at the plant in Van Nuys, Calif., before it closed.

"It's a mall now," Tonioli said.

"I heard Tom Selleck owns it," Gallegos said.

Close, but not exactly. Redevelopment on that property began in the late '90s by The Selleck Group (owned by Tom Selleck's brother, Dan Selleck) and Voit Companies. Now known as The Plant, the 127-acre site is home to restaurants, a 16-screen movie theater and several retail stores including a Home Depot, Babies "R'' Us and an Office Max.

As a project, The Plant represents more than a decade of work and a more than $100 million investment, Dan Selleck said. He said it doesn't seem that Spring Hill is in the same situation the Van Nuys plant was in at that time.

"We were in a pretty deep recession at that point in time. After two years, they didn't have any success in finding another automobile or manufacturer to step in," he said. "I wouldn't give up hope that maybe (Spring Hill) could have another automobile there."

Gallegos said he hopes the Spring Hill plant will resume full production soon and that he can stay on long enough to feel it is safe to retire.

"They'd like to get rid of people like us who are earning top dollar," he said. "But I think they will get another car. I really do."

Just what will happen to the Spring Hill plant remains unknown.

Spring Hill Economic Development Commission Chairman Dustin Dunbar said it's all up to GM, which spent more than $700 million in 2007 and 2008 remodeling the plant so it can quickly be retooled to build any car in the automaker's lineup.

"GM feels like it's a great plant and they want to keep it, but they've not given any indication of what they want to build there," Dunbar said. "We get people asking about it all the time in terms of what's next. I really wish I had an answer for them."

Meanwhile, the EDC is working on a plan to identify and recruit new companies that would hire the former GM workers.

The impact of the layoffs will be felt regionally as well. Roughly 500 employees live in Spring Hill while some others commute from Kentucky and Alabama.

The plant's opening helped pave the way for growth in Spring Hill, which was just 1,464 people when the first Saturn rolled off the assembly line in 1990. Today, Spring Hill's population is estimated at 25,000.

The EDC already has been approached by a Chicago-based realty company about the GM property. Circle Realty Advisors gave it a presentation a few weeks ago.

But Dunbar said he feels confident that GM intends to keep the plant, even if they haven't decided what they'll do with it.

"That's what we basically told them," he said. "Number one: The plant is not for sale. Number two: They will hopefully decide to build something there. We're just waiting in limbo until they decide what that is."

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