August 28, 2014 at 1:00 am

GM investment bolsters growth of Tennessee town

Spring Hill, Tenn. —For six months, Lee Swegles commuted home to Tennessee on weekends from the General Motors plant he transferred to in Missouri. When car production returned to GM’s Spring Hill complex two years ago, Swegles returned as well. He is encouraged by the growth at the GM plant he has worked at for more than two decades.

GM announced Wednesday it will build the next-generation Cadillac SRX at its big Spring Hill plant here and will invest another $185 million for new engines to be built at the complex, retaining 390 jobs.

Swegles, 48, a repair tech in the assembly plant, didn’t want to leave his family in Spring Hill. But he accepted a job in late 2011 as a fork truck driver at GM’s Wentzville Assembly Plant in Missouri. He didn’t know how long he’d be gone or if he would need to uproot his family and sell his home.

“The worst thing in the world is saying goodbye to your wife at 10 o’clock at night, having to drive 5½ hours to Missouri,” Swegles, a father of two recalled this week.

Swegles was lucky and got the callback to Spring Hill after six months. He is grateful to be back at Spring Hill and sees the prospect of new jobs as a chance for others to return; hundreds who took other jobs at GM plants after the assembly plant was idled in late 2009 are waiting.

Local UAW and government officials are excited because the plant could double assembly employment in the next few years; GM has promised the SRX and another vehicle will create or retain 1,800 jobs. Nearly 1,000 work to build Chevrolet Equinox crossovers.

UAW Local 1853 Chairman Mike Herron said he expects both the SRX and the unnamed vehicle will be in production within two years, and that hundreds of new jobs and additional shifts will be added.

The entire Spring Hill complex includes stamping and injection mold operations, paint operations and an engine plant. It employs about 2,300 including about 1,600 hourly workers.

It’s not just auto growth in this city of 32,000. New homes are being built and a movie theater and local chain restaurant are under construction along the Saturn Parkway, named for Saturn cars that were built here for nearly two decades. City leaders and GM officials say growth in the Nashville area, plus good schools and affordable housing have developed Spring Hill into a bedroom community over the past 10 years.

“Spring Hill is no longer just a bedroom community to Nashville,” Spring Hill Mayor Rick Graham said in a statement. “We are creating good-paying jobs here for our residents.”

The city of Spring Hill and Maury County this week announced a combined $2 million in tax incentives for two unnamed out-of-state auto parts makers. “Project Angus,” named for the cows that used to roam the farmland, is expected to create 357 jobs; “Project Buckeye” is expected to receive 217 jobs. Both companies are expected to pay workers around $33,000 to $34,000 a year.

A person familiar with the plans said “Project Angus” is Magna Seating, a seating supplier based in Novi.

Excavation and foundation work already has started on part of a 162-acre site on Beechcroft Road where the two auto suppliers will set up shop less than a mile from the GM plant.

NorthPoint Development President Chad Meyer, whose firm is developing the site, said the plants are expected to be completed by early next year. He said one company supplies seats to GM and the other does subassembly wheel and tire work.

Meyer said the firm hopes to grow the site to five to seven suppliers. GM is working to bring its suppliers closer to its plants to save on shipping costs and improve quality and relationships.

He said the practice can take trucks off the road and help the environment, plus boost quality and on-time deliveries. He said GM’s efforts to localize suppliers ultimately will save GM “hundreds of millions of dollars over time.”

Some in this once-quiet town don’t like the added traffic. They know that auto suppliers will add to problems on the two-lane country road near the Spring Hill complex. They know that more development will take away grasslands and cornfields.

Still, most have adjusted since the mid-1980s when GM chose to build its home for Saturn here. And they have seen what would happen if GM left town: A few years ago when the assembly operations almost closed, some 2,000 workers were laid off.

“General Motors jump started our transition into the future,” Maury County Mayor Jim Bailey said. “We were pretty much a sleepy Southern town.”

Kim Gillian is one local resident who in unsure about all the growth. She owns the Red Oak Cafe coffee shop and bakery in Neapolis near the Spring Hill plant.

She hopes the expansion of the plant and addition of new auto suppliers will bring business to the shop she’s owned since January. But she also lives a half-mile from the Beechcroft Road construction site and chose her home eight years ago in part because of its quiet location surrounded by fields where she can stargaze in the evenings.

“The quiet and peacefulness of our neighborhood is going to be affected by the factory, especially being that close to our homes,” she said, adding she’s worried about added traffic, noise and lights from the facility affecting her view of the night sky.

Gillian said she’s not against Spring Hill growing. But she said local government has not done what is needed to improve roads to prepare for the additional traffic. She said she is all for the new jobs coming to the area with the new auto supplier plants. “But I don’t like where they chose to put it.”

Bailey, who was one of the government officials who signed off on approving the Saturn plant nearly 30 years ago, said Wednesday he believes infrastructure and road issues will be worked out.

City officials said the developers of the Beechcroft Road industrial park will need to complete road expansion around the entrances to the facility.

“I think we’re prepared for whatever growth can happen here now,” Bailey said.

Bailey said he thinks there is more good news headed for Spring Hill, both the community and GM plant.

“We’ve been through our ups and downs in the automotive industry. This plant has certainly felt its share of heartbreak and also its share of success,” Bailey said. “This is a great thing today. It solidifies, I think, that this plant is here to stay now and (will bring) more jobs for our community.”

mburden@detroitnews.com
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Kim Gillian, owner of the Red Oak Cafe, hopes GM's expansion in Spring Hill will bring more business to her shop but also worries about its impact. 'The quiet and peacefulness of our neighborhood is going to be affected by the factory, especially being that close to our homes.' / Photos by Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News
Work is underway at a construction site where new auto parts plants will ... (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)