Howes: Flint, Lordstown sites vie for postal contract, revival
Rarely does a government-affiliated contract captivate a chunk of the global auto industry — except when it’s a prospective $6.3 billion deal to build 180,000 next-generation delivery trucks for the United States Postal Service.
The postal service says the winning bid will be selected by year end, raising the prospect the choice could be influenced by political considerations, if not targeted by presidential tweets, going into an election year. At least two finalists — and several partners among the other finalists — hail from the battleground states of Michigan and Ohio that President Donald Trump carried in 2016 and likely will need to win again to stay in the Oval Office.
One contender, Mahindra Automotive North America Inc., says it's in the process of acquiring old General Motors Corp.’s Buick City site in Flint to produce the delivery vehicles and other products, a potential economic boon to the city. Another, the newly formed Lordstown Motors Corp., says it would build a postal entry from its affiliate Workhorse Group Inc. and V.T. Hackney Inc. at GM’s idled Lordstown Assembly Plant in northeast Ohio.
Both projects implicitly promise to breathe new life into old auto assets discarded by a Detroit automaker. That comparatively rare phenomenon is becoming more common as new players form to exploit opportunities in the Auto 2.0 spaces of mobility, autonomy and electrification — and propose to do it in the industrial Midwest.
How convenient, politically speaking. The president's path to a second term will run through the same states that delivered his improbable win nearly three years ago, states that have enjoyed manufacturing job creation in general despite GM's move to idle four U.S. plants in Maryland, Michigan and Ohio.
Which means the postal contract could be freighted with political implications in states whose partisan tilt has shifted since the last presidential elections. Democrats carried all three of Michigan's statewide offices last cycle, gained seats in the state Legislature and expanded their control of the congressional delegation.
And Trump's plea to people in the Mahoning Valley to hang on to their homes because the manufacturing jobs in that corner of the state are "all coming back" clearly didn't anticipate GM's move on Lordstown. No, the automaker's plans for the massive plant, officially under negotiation in ongoing contract talks with the United Auto Workers, proved embarrassing for Trump — and explain why he used his Twitter account to tout the Workhorse affiliate's interest in Lordstown.
It's no accident Mahindra is hot for Buick City and Workhorse and the newly formed Lordstown Motors are eyeing the sprawling plant in that corner of Ohio. Each understands the prospect of reviving either site would be irresistible in an election year, a PR and community asset to the winning company and a political win for the incumbent administration.
Both Flint and the Mahoning Valley possess proud industrial histories fallen on hard times. Both have political resonance with state lawmakers and news media familiar with their stories. And both are in need of focused economic redevelopment because their major employers (GM and steel mills in the fabled "Steel City") withered amid intense foreign competition.
One of two foreign-owned entities among the finalists — the other is Karsan Otomotiv of Turkey — Mahindra is a unit of the Mumbai-based Mahindra Group, a $21 billion company with interests in autos, mobility, farm equipment, information technology and financial services. Terms of the postal service contract require the vehicles to contain at least 51% U.S. content and that they be produced in the United States — conditions the Indian automaker is confident it can meet.
But will that be enough at the confluence of presidential politics and economic decision-making tinged with nationalism? People angling for a $6.3 billion contract to undergird their business case will seize advantage wherever they can, and promising to build on Flint's Buick City site and in Lordstown's GM plant is one of those advantages.
Whether it works remains to be seen.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.