May 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

GM, workers air concerns to auto recovery czar

Obama administration to work toward aiding distressed cities, says Montgomery

Auto recovery czar Ed Montgomery, center, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm watch the assembly of a V-6 engine at the GM Flint engine plant Friday. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Warren -- President Barack Obama's auto industry recovery guru spent his second day in Michigan on Friday listening to the concerns of residents in southeastern Michigan and said he hopes to have answers soon on helping distressed cities.

Montgomery toured a General Motors Corp. Powertrain plant in Flint and the company's Technical Center in Warren before he ended his trip with a roundtable discussion in Detroit at NextEnergy, an alternative energy business incubator.

"We need to continue to work together," Montgomery told a forum at Macomb Community College that included Gov. Jennifer Granholm. "I will be back and hope to be making progress on this very quickly."

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts was happy with what he heard from Montgomery before the two toured the Tech Center across from City Hall. Fouts suggested that GM consolidate and move all of its facilities to his city.

"The future in Michigan is to go green. I want to offer Warren as a beginning seed point for green industries," he said. "The GM Tech Center has the resources, design and executive offices.

"There was interest (in the plan) but they didn't make a commitment either way," he said. "Obviously I planted a seed."

After the program, Macomb County Commissioner Ed Bruley said he was worried about how quickly help will arrive.

"The crisis hit last fall ... the federal government has to move faster," the Democrat from Clinton Township said. "I'm apprehensive about when it'll happen."

But others were inspired by Montgomery's visit.

"I do have faith President Obama's team will respond to this," said Lark Samouelian, Warren's communications director. "The most important characteristic is they took the time to listen."

In his stop in Flint, Montgomery announced that the federal government will expand eligibility for training dollars for workers who are unemployed. The program will enable workers laid off from the reeling auto industry to retrain for high-demand careers.

"The president made a commitment that we will stand behind auto companies and workers," Montgomery said at Mott Community College.

In an interview with The Detroit News, Montgomery said his conversations with autoworkers can be gut-wrenching.

"You hear the stories from the workers and the representatives of labor about problems with housing and health care. This is real, this is significant," he said.

"I'm also impressed with the resiliency of the people of Michigan."

Asked whether there are pressing needs here that the federal government cannot address, he said: "You have challenges in this state in terms of stabilizing the economy. It's going to take some time. But the economy here will start growing ... and we can help."

Montgomery toured the GM Powertrain engine plant in Flint, where 417 workers make engines for several of the automaker's more popular brands, including the Chevy Malibu and the Cadillac CTS. The plant will make engines for the Chevy Volt starting in December.

"I was struck by the high quality of the Flint factory," he said, noting that workers there must go through 300 hours of training.

Duane Zuckschwerdt, director of UAW Region 1C, said he and his co-workers hoped to send a message to politicians in Washington about how important manufacturing is.

"We're trying to get them to understand what's going on in the community," he said. "It's not just autoworkers."

Montgomery is in the state to coordinate federal aid to communities hard hit by the auto industry decline. He announced in Grand Rapids Thursday a $10.3 million brownfields redevelopment grant and an expanded business loan program for auto dealers, suppliers and repair shops to get access to credit.

Granholm said she has asked Montgomery for grants to help the state diversify, most notably in the areas of advanced battery development and wind power.

Montgomery shares a laugh while sitting in a Cadillac Converj. While in ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)