May 17, 2007 at 1:00 am

Workers at Ford's Wixom plant punching out for the last time

Oakland County town prepares to go on without the employer that gave it life a half-century ago

WIXOM -- This town wouldn't exist without Ford Motor Co. -- but now it's going to have to try.

Born in 1957 when Ford established Lincoln luxury cars here as a stand-alone division, this city in western Oakland County became home to Lincoln headquarters and a massive assembly plant. Through the decades, workers at Wixom Assembly built one classic American car after another, including the Ford Thunderbird and Lincolns that included the Continental, the Mark III-V and the Town Car.

But it wasn't enough.

Weak sales of Lincolns will force the plant to cease production at the end of this month, Ford officials announced Wednesday, making Wixom one of nine plants that Ford plans to idle by 2008.

What will happen to the plant remains undecided, a Ford spokeswoman said. But the city's Ford workers, politicians and businesses remain upbeat.

"We knew this plant closing was coming and we've been preparing for quite some time," Wixom Mayor Michael McDonald said. "A long time ago, we decided we need to diversify the economy."

McDonald said Ford taught the city to always be innovative -- and never to depend on just Ford.

It's a lesson the city has learned well. Fifteen years ago, the Ford plant made up half of Wixom's tax revenue. Now, it's only 11 percent -- about $1 million -- of the city's revenue, said City Manager J. Michael Dornan.

From its inception, the plant just off I-96 was routinely hailed for its cutting-edge technology, its quality and productivity. A decade ago, Wixom was expanded, becoming Ford's largest car assembly plant in North America at 4.7 million square feet.

At its peak in 1988, the plant produced 280,659 vehicles a year. This year, it will make less than 40,000. Ford sold a meager 3,712 Lincoln Town cars in April, a drop of 1,115 from the same period a year ago, according to Autodata Corp.

"This plant will idle May 31, but its legacy will never die," Mario DiLisio, chairman of the United Auto Workers Local 36, said during a tour of the plant Wednesday.

Wixom hourly workers praised Ford's generous buyout packages.

"Yes, it's kind of bittersweet moment, but the real good news is that everyone I know will land on their feet," said Alonzo Smith, 41, who will transfer to a Dearborn Ford facility.

Working at Ford Wixom is a family affair for Smith, something that's not uncommon among Ford hourly workers. His father, James Smith, moved from Alabama to Michigan for a prized factory job and spent 34 years at Ford Wixom. Alonzo Smith started at Ford Wixom after he got out of the Marine Corps in 1988. He met his wife, Stefanie Harris, at the Wixom plant, and has a brother there, too.

Still, he wants more for others in the family. "We want our children to continue their education. It's a great career, but to expect that to keep continuing for generation after generation is not something I want."

City focuses beyond Ford

The city of Wixom, likewise, is focused on a future beyond Ford.

For more than a decade, the city has worked to lure small industrial companies, including at least six that have set up headquarters here. They include National Liquid Blasting Corp., which employs about 300. General Motors Corp. powertrain and design services units also are in Wixom, employing 300 workers.

"We've been open to small entrepreneurs who need just about 2,000 square feet to small industrial companies that need 10,000 square feet," McDonald said. "I can't think of one, really, that relies solely or much on the Ford Wixom plant for its business.

Yet, there will be some pain. "Of course, we are going to take a hit," McDonald said. "I worry about a lot of the restaurants and the dry cleaners who relied on those Ford workers for their business."

If things go as planned, Wixom city officials estimate the direct tax hit from the loss of Ford Wixom will be $500,000 to $600,000 in the next five years.

Several developers said Wixom can adapt quickly.

"I know a lot of communities in Michigan who wish they could perform as good as Wixom right now," said Rob Hughes, a vice president at Colliers International, a real estate firm.

"I worry about the Quizno's, the Dunkin' Donuts and the Wendy's there," Hughes said. "But they are in a great location, right there in the middle of western Oakland County growth and they continue to attract high-tech facilities.

"I've seen a number of former auto plants in the region, in far less desirable locations, that have been redeveloped, so I think a lot of people believe that plant will not be empty forever."

You can reach Louis Aguilar at (313) 222-2760 or laguilar@detnews.com">laguilar@detnews.com.

Debbie Branttey puts parts onto the frame of a vehicle at Ford's Wixom ... (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)
The logo on employee Joe Craanen's shirt communicates his feelings about ... (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)