Nelson Peters wanted to get some perspective on an eye-popping number. So the Allen County commissioner did what so many people do these days: He turned to Google.
When Peters searched to find other business investments in the same ballpark as the $1.2 billion upgrade planned by General Motors to its Allen County truck assembly plant, he couldn’t find even one in the U.S. in the past year.
"That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but it led me to believe that this investment is huge," he said Tuesday afternoon during GM’s formal announcement.
GM officials agree, describing it as among the largest the company has ever made.
Construction is scheduled to begin next month on a new paint shop and expanded body shop in the plant that builds Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups in three shifts. The operation employs about 3,800 hourly and salaried workers.
The project, which includes installing state-of-the-art vehicle painting and pretreatment technology, is expected to take several years to complete. Hundreds of short-term construction jobs will be created during that period, a GM official said. No long-term jobs are expected to be created in the plant as part of the project.
Ongoing production of light- and heavy-duty pickup trucks won’t be affected.
The local investment is part of a larger company initiative. On April 30, GM officials announced plans that would invest $5.4 billion in U.S. plant improvements over the next three years. The Allen County project represents slightly more than 22 percent of the total.
The Detroit-based automaker noted in April that the grand total translates to GM investing about $5 million a day – every day – in its American operations for the next three years.
Cathy Clegg, GM North America Manufacturing vice president, said Tuesday that the investment in Allen County’s facility is a significant amount even for a company with a $57 billion market capitalization – the total value of all its stock.
"This is the largest investment we’ve made in this facility and one of the largest investments we’ve made ever," she said.
"We are committed to America, Americans and American jobs," said Clegg, who is a former manager of the local plant. "And we are committed to Fort Wayne and the state of Indiana in a big way."
"It’s a great day for Fort Wayne" was the mantra of several company, union and elected officials during the announcement at the southwest Allen County plant.
About 300 people attended the news conference, including about 200 hourly workers, who sat on bleachers and white, plastic chairs arranged in long rows.
Mike Glinski, plant manager, shared the lectern with Rich LeTourneau, bargaining chairman for United Auto Workers Local 2209, the union that represents local hourly workers. They took turns making remarks and introducing company and union officials.
LeTourneau played to the crowd, eliciting both applause and catcalls with lines that included: "Did we knock this one out of the park? Hell, yes!"
He also received a rousing response when he recalled the federal government’s $49.5 billion GM bailout from 2009.
"This country took a great risk investing in American autoworkers," he said. "That was the right thing to do, wasn’t it?"
Cindy Estrada, UAW vice president, praised local workers for not getting distracted when public opinion was sharply divided between those who supported helping the bankrupt automakers and those who didn’t. A lot of people bet against American workers and General Motors, she said.
"You didn’t let that get in your way," Estrada said. "This is a perfect example of us changing the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality."
Gov. Mike Pence was among those members of Congress who voted against the GM bailout. After the formal ceremony, he told The Journal Gazette that he didn’t think it was the best response to the situation.
"I was very interested at that time in other alternatives that were being considered by Congress," he said.
In his formal remarks, Pence said he met with Mary Barra, GM’s CEO, who reminded him that the global company has the ability to invest in operations around the world.
GM, its subsidiaries and joint venture entities in 30 countries sell vehicles under the Chevrolet, Cadillac, Baojun, Buick, GMC, Holden, Jiefang, Opel, Vauxhall and Wuling brands.
The company has committed $1.2 billion of its $5.4 billion in U.S. plant upgrades to Fort Wayne and $785 million to be split between three Michigan locations. More announcements will be made in coming months.
Pence credited the local workforce for tipping the balance in Fort Wayne’s favor.
"It really, ultimately, is about the people here," he said.
By winning the GM upgrade, the region could end up attracting even more business investment, Pence said. He theorized that other companies will give northeast Indiana a second look as they try to answer the question why GM chose this plant for such a significant investment.
Peters also addressed the bigger picture.
"This investment will cement General Motors’ foundation in this community for years to come," he said. Turning to GM officials, he said, "Your commitment is how strong communities are built."
Mayor Tom Henry also addressed the company during his turn at the microphone.
"General Motors, you can be assured these workers won’t let you down," he said to cheers from the assembled assembly workers.
The upgrades will include technology that applies a thin-film paint pretreatment and customizes painting for each vehicle style. A new system will make it physically easier for workers to assemble instrument panels and lead to better quality, officials said.
Since June 2009, GM has announced about $16.8 billion in factory investments nationally and created 3,650 new jobs.
That includes $275 million in equipment and construction invested in the last couple of years to outfit the Allen County assembly plant to build the next-generation Silverado and Sierra. Model redesigns happen every few years.
Allen County Council members last October approved more than $15 million in tax abatements over 10 years on what was then a prospective $1 billion upgrade for the local plant.
Although Pence said he and other state officials worked closely with GM to secure the project, no information was provided about incentives offered by Indiana.