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United States:Wixom weans itself from Ford

Thriving town outgrows reliance on struggling plant

By Jennifer Brooks / The Detroit News

WIXOM -- For 46 years, Wixom's fortunes rose and fell with Ford Motor Co.

The massive Wixom Assembly Plant was the city's landmark, its top employer and its main source of revenue. Wixom revolved around Wixom Assembly.

But Wixom watched and learned from the agony of Flint, Pontiac and other cities whose economies shattered when the automaker left town. And for the past decade, Wixom has worked to become less dependent on the Ford plant and the tax dollars it generates.

Ten years ago, there were 80 businesses in Wixom. Today, there are more than 800, a 1,000 percent increase. When Metro Detroit's suburban development boom reached southwestern Oakland County, it swept thousands of new residents and millions of dollars' worth of residential and commercial construction into Wixom.

While Wixom's star was on the rise, the Ford plant was in decline, slowing production, cutting shifts and sparking concern that the assembly line might close for good one of these years. Ford officials have been ominously tight-lipped about the long-term fate of the underused Wixom plant, which builds the Ford Thunderbird, the Lincoln LS and the Lincoln Town Car, saying only that the plant's future is under review.

Fifteen years ago, losing Wixom Assembly, the largest employer in town and the source of more than 55 percent of municipal tax revenues, would have been a crushing blow. Today, Ford contributes less than 17 percent of the tax base in a new economy that is as much white-collar as blue-collar. Today, the thought of losing Ford is more a cause for regret than panic.

"If the factory went away, it won't affect us too much," said Moe Leon, whose restaurant sits across the street from the factory.

Leon chose the property six years ago, figuring to cash in on the hungry factory crowds.

"I saw how Wixom was growing, and I figured the Ford plant would mean extra business," Leon said.

It didn't work out that way. Soon after he opened his doors, Ford cut back from three shifts to one and put the remaining workers on 20-minute meal breaks -- not nearly enough time for a good sit-down meal at Leon's Family Dining. Almost immediately, Leon realized he would be doing most of his business -- and business is good -- among the increasingly affluent residents of Wixom. The city's population increased by 55 percent between 1990 and 2000, to 13,207.

Wixom is home to some of the most expensive residential real estate in Oakland County, which in turn is one of the most expensive places to live in the state. The price of the average Wixom home is $195,000 and revenues from residential property taxes further bolster city revenue.

Underused Ford plant

Like other businesses in town, Leon appreciates the Ford plant and the money it pumps into the local economy. Few people are counting on Ford being around in the long term. In fact, he figures he might benefit if the factory closes and is replaced by an office park complex, full of workers who take hour-long lunch breaks.

It is Wixom's misfortune to manufacture luxury automobiles -- Thunderbirds and Lincoln sedans -- at a time when fewer car buyers are shopping for luxuries.

The plant is one of the most underused Ford facilities in the country.

Production at the plant has slowed dramatically in recent years, as Lincoln sales slumped and the revived Thunderbird failed to catch on with car buyers. Both the Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental lines have been discontinued.

In 1990, Wixom Assembly workers built 220,000 vehicles. Last year, it was 145,000. This year, the plant's output will drop to 130,000.

Ford spokesman Jon Harmon said the company briefly considered closing the under-performing plant as it headed into contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers this summer. The proposal was quickly discarded, at least during the coming three-year contract cycle.

"Wixom remains in our product plans," said Harmon, Ford's manager of manufacturing public affairs for the Ford Motor Co. "We do have an overcapacity issue (at Wixom Assembly). Early on (closing the Wixom plant) was on the table."

Drive to diversify

Preparing for the worst, Wixom City Manager J. Michael Dornan has led the city's drive to diversify its economy, hoping to draw enough new business to cushion the blow if something were to happen to its flagship industry.

"Like the wise man once said, it's not prudent to put all your eggs in one basket," Dornan said. "We believe it's important to have good relations with the plant. They do generate a significant percentage of our tax base. But we have attempted to diversify our local economy."

The majority of the new businesses in Wixom are light manufacturing, many of them tied to the automobile industry. But Dornan said many of those businesses seem to be diversifying as well -- a company that makes glass for automobile windshields has branched out into aviation glass contracts, for example.

Although Wixom Assembly is the largest employer in town, most of its employees commute from out of town. For many Wixom residents, their only contact with the factory comes in the form of massive traffic jams that clog the roads and highway during the shift change.

Recovery likely

Donald Grimes of the University of Michigan draws up an annual economic forecast for Oakland County. He knows the Wixom plant well, and not just as numbers on a spreadsheet. He worked on the plant's assembly line during college.

The loss of the factory would hurt Wixom's revenues for a few years, he believes, but it wouldn't cripple the economy. In fact, it might open up new opportunities.

"Wixom would take a big hit," Grimes said. "But the fact is that it's a growing area. In fact, I'm sure they'd also benefit (if Wixom Assembly closes)," Grimes said, pointing out that if Ford walks away from the 46-year-old plant, the 325-acre site at the intersection of Interstate 96 and Wixom Road is bound to draw interest from other companies.

Michigan communities learned the hard lessons of the 1980s, when factory pullouts of cities like Flint and Pontiac gutted local economies. Grimes said a closer model for Wixom would be Ypsilanti, which suffered through the closure of GM's Willow Run Assembly Plant in 1993.

It took a few years, Grimes said, but the community recovered. Even Pontiac, which went into a tailspin after GM downsized its facilities in the city, is reinventing itself as a night life and entertainment mecca.

For some Wixom residents, the question is not "Will the plant close?" it's "What new development will we build on the land where the Ford plant used to be?"

"Whatever happens down there really won't affect us," said Bob Scheuer, who is completing $4 million in renovations to his Total Sports recreation facility just up the road from the Ford plant. About 30,000 people a week flock to his indoor and outdoor soccer fields, a roller hockey rink and facilities for flag football, lacrosse and weight training. The facility also has a restaurant. He has tried without success to persuade Ford to bring its soccer teams over to play on his two new lighted baseball fields.

In fact, he said, if the Ford plant folded, he wouldn't mind seeing the property convert to a residential development, full of soccer-playing kids and families.

Like other new businesses, he was drawn to town by Wixom's development-friendly policy, where new businesses can get their site plans approved and begin construction in the time it takes some communities to set the date for an initial site-plan review.

Scheuer said it took 83 days from his first contact with city officials to the planning approval to construction.

"If I were in Novi, we would have spent 183 days just talking about trees, which ones you can cut down, which ones have to stay up," he said.

"This location's fantastic. When I bought the property in 1997, every day I knew the site would get better," said Scheuer, who says he would have to pay $4 million more if he were to buy the same 38 acres today. He chose Wixom, he said, because "Wixom wanted us here. They knew what we'd bring to the community."

Dornan is an unabashed business booster.

"We can name that tune, get that site plan approved, get that company built, in one meeting. Really, that's what our mission is," he said.

"Even if everything went haywire (with Ford), we'd be OK. I would be surprised if Ford real estate didn't come along and put in an industrial park."

(Photo)The Wixom Assembly Plant contributed more than 55 percent of the Wixom tax base 15 years ago. Today, with the suburb's development boom of the past decade, Ford's tax contribution has shrunk to less than 17 percent.

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

My next Ford.....
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