June 4, 2009 at 1:00 am

Obama official tries to quell auto fears

Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, right, shakes hands with Phill Wiser and greets other employees at Dakkota Integrated Systems LLC in Holt on Wednesday. (Charles V. Tines The Detroit News)

Holt -- A high-level Obama administration official spent a couple hours in Michigan on Wednesday to allay people's fears about the future of the domestic automakers and to tell business and community leaders how the government can help make them whole again.

Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke also announced $27 million in grants to be shared by six Midwestern states. The money is part of the federal stimulus package.

Locke said his department can help emerging businesses get access to capital and those slammed by the auto industry downturn to diversify.

"We need to get together with the governor's office and get the word out. We're available to help companies diversify," the former two-term governor of Washington state said after a question-and-answer session with workers and local leaders at Dakkota Integrated Systems LLC, a Holt auto supplier that makes instrument panels.

He was asked how the federal government, now that it owns a majority of bankrupt General Motors, can help the car company promote its products.

"President Obama has no intention of getting involved in the day-to-day operations of General Motors," Locke said. "If we get involved in promotions and advertising, where does it stop? We need to turn management over to the experts."

He added that the federal government's ownership of GM is temporary. "This is not a takeover," he said. "The U.S. government does not want to be a shareholder in GM for any long period of time."

Locke noted that the bankruptcy filing "was coming for a long time, but that does not make any less the body blow."

His appearance in Michigan came on the second day of a string of visits by federal officials in the anxious aftermath following GM's filing. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and auto recovery director Ed Montgomery were in the state Tuesday.

Lizabeth Ardisana, CEO of ASG Renaissance, a technical and communications services firm in Dearborn that serves the auto industry and others, said the gathering with Locke was helpful.

"Commerce has a number of programs that were always available to us. People simply don't know about them," she said.

Leon Richardson of ChemicoMays in Chesterfield Township wanted to know how Commerce can help small businesses in Michigan get defense department contracts. Locke said he'll look into it.

"The meeting could be helpful if they're serious about this commitment," he said.

Dennis Keat, CEO of Su-Dan Corp., an auto supplier in Rochester Hills, showed up to say how the recovery act saved his company. As a tier-one supplier, he got a check from the federal government to tide his company over during the GM bankruptcy.

"We were so afraid of the GM filing because of the amount of money they owed us. We couldn't have survived without the help," said Keat, whose company's work force has dwindled from 250 six months ago to 80 because of the auto sales slump and a 50 percent reduction in orders.

Roslyn Personius, a worker at Dakkota, said Locke's visit to her plant "shows Washington is hearing our voice."

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