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GM opens doors to Buffalo plant, announces $33 million investment

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Daniel Robison
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WNED
GM company officials, joined by political heavy hitters, reveled in bringing the level of investment in the Tonawanda plant to $850 million over the last two years.

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The General Motors Engine Plant in Tonawanda is opening its doors to the public today, for the first time in eight years. The event is part of the automaker’s attempt to re-brand itself after its bankruptcy and bailout.

“You’re going to have the spouses walking by seeing what their loved ones do for a living. Instead of thinking we’re sitting here playing cards,” says Bob Coleman, shop chairman in Tonawanda.

“A lot of people think we come to work and screw a nut on. It’s not true.”

GM is trying to fix that perception problem by demonstrating, in person, what goes into manufacturing vehicles in 2011. It’s also to persuade the public that GM is healthy after its bankruptcy and bailout two years ago.

“We don’t like to call it a bailout here. As far as we’re concerned it’s a loan to put us back on our feet and help us,” Coleman says.

"Normal, regular workday"

GM has had to dedicate significant manpower to prepare for the tours: Preparing to parade the public through a working factory has disrupted normal business.

“It will be a normal production day for us. People will be able to see what we do on a normal regular workday. It’s part of the experience,” says Steve Finch, plant manager.

The Tonawanda facility, which opened its doors first in 1938, has changed dramatically over the years. It used to employ nearly 10,000 workers, Finch says. Now fewer than 700 work full time at the engine plant.

“A lot of people that have [were] in the factory years ago, or maybe have in their mind or imagination what a factory environment looks like, [are] just totally blown away and surprised when they come into our facility,” Finch says.

New investments not yet ready for the spotlight

Last year, GM announced $825 million in new investment at the Tonawanda plant to build a line of the automaker’s new Ecotec engine line, beginning next year. But evidence of that venture is still under construction, and won’t likely be part of the public showcase.  

GM likely wouldn’t be opening its doors, disrupting its schedule, and spending money on creating a production around the event if it wasn’t going to improve the company’s standing in the public’s eyes.

“We really want to reach out and say ‘thank you’ to the public who have supported us through the bankruptcy and [who] have also now supported us post-bankruptcy by buying our vehicles,” Finch says.

For those who haven’t bought vehicles, the event will offer a simulated car lot, stocked with new GM vehicles (including the Chevy Volt), for visitors to test drive.

“In a non-sales mode. Just a chance to kick the tires so to speak,” Finch says.

GM plants nationwide are offering tours of their facilities, throughout the summer.

Before the tour, a $33 million announcement

General Motors will invest an additional $33 million to bolster engine production at its plant in Tonawanda, company officials announced Friday.

The automaker says the investment will save or create 100 jobs.

Shop Chairman Bob Coleman says GM hasn’t fully recovered from its bankruptcy two years ago, but this is a start.

“These are proud days for us when we can announce anything. People don’t realize that we compete against our own GM facilities to get work,” Coleman says.

As part of its restructuring, GM has ramped up competition between its 54 U.S. facilities. So far, western New York seems to be a favorite child: Close to $850 million in new investment in just the past two years.

The $33 million dollars will go toward building more four cylinder engines for the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain.

Plant Manager Steve Finch says that money will percolate into local economy.

“Each of those families goes to grocery stores, go to barber shop, they wash their cars, they go to local restaurants, and attend local churches,” Finch says.

Newly sworn-in Congresswoman Kathy Hochul says the news validates the government’s bailout of the automaker two years ago.

“I’m glad that the taxpayer in our country invested in GM. There were very difficult times just a few years ago. And I think things are better than just a short time ago," Hochul says. "And look at how this investment has paid off. This is great not just for our country but particularly for our western New York community."

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