BANGOR – Seeking to influence a possible vote in Congress next week on a bailout for Detroit automakers, an executive of Ford Motor Co. and a Bangor automobile dealer argued forcefully Friday that the well-being of Maine’s economy is tied to that of the U.S. auto industry.
“The impact of not having an automotive industry in the U.S. would be devastating,” Ford Motor Co.’s Jim Vella said by telephone from Dearborn, Mich., the company’s headquarters. “It speaks to the future of manufacturing in this country.”
Vella is president of the Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic wing of Ford.
Jack Quirk, president of Quirk Auto Group, said it’s not right that many U.S. banks received much larger bailouts with relative ease, while the American automakers have been ridiculed for asking for help.
“We’re the punching bag of the month,” he said in a telephone interview Friday from his Bangor office. “A couple of months ago it was the oil companies. Before that, the pharmaceuticals. And all we’re trying to do is educate our Congress people and the public about how important this domestic industry is to America.”
While the chiefs of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors made their case before Congress, Maine Ford dealers put on a news conference at Portland’s Hadlock Field to bring the issue closer to home than the factory floors of Michigan.
Maine has 6,384 auto-related jobs, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Those jobs include 265 positions at Brewer auto part suppliers ZF Lemforder and Brewer Automotive Components.
Vella said auto executives are very willing to have the government keep a watchful eye on any money lent to GM, Chrysler or Ford – and hoped to remind them that Ford made a slight profit during the first quarter of 2008.
But while Vella acknowledged the frustration voiced by some American taxpayers – and politicians – about being asked to open their wallets once again to help a troubled industry, he said that the price of losing the auto industry altogether would be far too high.
“Senator Chris Dodd said that not providing assistance would be like playing Russian roulette with the economy,” Vella said of the Connecticut Democrat, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee. “Our industry is one that’s been a fabric of this society for 100 years. And unfortunately, sometimes people don’t miss what they have until it’s gone – and we don’t want to put ourselves in that position.”
Quirk said he employs 375 employees statewide, but that his company’s economic reach is even larger.
“Most dealerships are still family-run, are still local and are very loyal to their communities,” he said.
While he sells both American-made and imported vehicles, his top-seller is the Chevy Silverado. Quirk said General Motors has more models that get more than 30 miles to the gallon than Toyota, and that the Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid won the 2008 Green Car of the Year award from Green Car Journal.
“I don’t know what it is about us Americans, but we like to beat up on ourselves,” Quirk said. “We still have the best country in the world, we still have the best health care in the world, our unemployment rate is the lowest in the world – even after today’s bad news. We just don’t want to pat ourselves on the back once in a while.”
The fortunes of the American auto industry have particular significance in Brewer, where auto parts supplier ZF Lemforder is the city’s second-largest taxpayer and Brewer Automotive Components the seventh-largest.
“We will do anything we can to give them assistance and support through the troubled times in the industry,” said Brewer Mayor Arthur Verow. “A healthy automotive industry is vital to many states and towns and cities across the nation, and we’re fortunate to have automobile parts manufacturers here in the city. They’ve been excellent business citizens.”
Bryan Johnson, director of marketing and communication for ZF Lemforder’s parent company, said the uncertainty about the future of the American auto industry was taking a toll on his company.
“Right now we’re playing with a Magic 8 ball,” Johnson said. “We have no idea. We’re making sure our books are in order with those particular customers, so if bankruptcy becomes an option we’ve reduced our risk as much as possible.”
Johnson said the Brewer plant sold $62 million worth of auto parts in 2007 and that the majority of the goods went to American automakers.
“We think that some of the states are being too short-sighted, thinking that this is just a Detroit thing,” Johnson said. “I think people have to look a little broader than that.”
Republican U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine said they would wait to decide on the proposed $34 billion bailout until they heard more specific plans from the automakers. Snowe spent an hour Thursday with Maine auto dealers discussing the situation.
Outgoing Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Allen said that he wouldn’t take a position before seeing a bill.
Democratic Rep. Michael Michaud said he thinks the automakers will “take back lost market share” if domestic producers are placed on an equal tax footing with foreign trading partners.
Rep.-elect Chellie Pingree, a Democrat who will be sworn into office Jan. 6, says she could get behind a bailout once a new Congress is in place if concessions are made and the industry reshapes itself.
Quirk said he hopes that ultimately Americans will vote for the bottom line – and in his view, that’s to help support the U.S. auto industry.
“If the United States loses the manufacturing, like the shoe industry and the paper industry and everything else, it’s just going to go away,” he said. “A lot of people say, if they go down, they’ll just buy something else. You may be able to, but it’ll cost you.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.