Monday, June 15, 2009

Deadline nears for plant closing: Officials marketing South Haven in effort to save 300 jobs

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Special to the Gazette

SOUTH HAVEN -- Nearly one-third of South Haven's industrial jobs likely will be lost by the end of this month when auto-parts supplier Noble International Ltd. closes its doors.

``It's a big hit,'' said Jack McCloughan, the city's economic-development liaison.

Noble filed for bankruptcy in April, and company officials said at the time that more than 300 jobs -- most of them full time -- would be cut by Friday if they couldn't find a buyer for the plant. Company officials could not be reached for comment for this report.

Area leaders have been in constant contact with the company, and earlier this month representatives of two other companies toured the plant, according to Southwest Michigan First Chief Executive Officer Ron Kitchens.

But with Saturday's deadline nearing, officials aren't optimistic that a deal will come in time to save local jobs.

``It's a day-by-day situation,'' South Haven City Manager Brian Dissette said. ``Our biggest concern is the 300 people facing potential job losses.''

Noble International Ltd. -- a supplier of laser-welded blanks and tubes, roll-formed products and steel components -- took over the facility in 2006 after acquiring Pullman Industries. The 150,000-square-foot plant, which is being leased by the company, is fitted with specialized equipment. An electrical substation is next door.

``It's really a nice, modern facility,'' McCloughan said. ``Anything can go there.''

Noble's U.S. headquarters is based in Troy and primarily serves the automotive industry, according to a company release announcing its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

That release says Noble has relied on financing arrangements from its customers to help sustain its North American operations. Recently, three of its customers initiated plans to purchase laser-welded products from other suppliers, the release states.

Kitchens said Southwest Michigan First -- a private, nonprofit organization that works as a catalyst for economic development in the Kalamazoo region -- is actively marketing the facility and its work force. He said two companies toured the plant this month. Both make different products but would need labor with the same skill set.

``I feel very confident. We're not like other regions in the state where a building goes empty and we look for money to tear it down,'' Kitchens said.

Area leaders said that South Haven has a lot to offer a prospective company: a talented work force, good quality of life, proximity to Lake Michigan and tax abatements. McCloughan said the city would offer any tax incentives allowed by law, including a 50 percent discount on personal property for 12 years.

City officials would not speculate on what Noble employees earn.

Kitchens said manufacturing jobs are the highest-wage jobs in the country and critically important.

``We can no longer think of manufacturing jobs as dirty and caustic,'' Kitchens said. ``Today they are high-tech and (require a) fairly well-educated (work force). If we don't use that talent, they'll have to leave.''

Paul VandenBosch, the city's project manager, said South Haven officials are working to diversify the local economy.

Among the city's employers is BEI International LLC, which makes agriculture equipment to harvest crops. It opened in 1952. About six years ago, Spencer Manufacturing Inc., which makes fire engines, opened. Just last year, New Age/Landmark opened to make environmental testing labs on trailers.

Kitchens said that diversity will help any city -- especially this resort town -- weather this and other economic downturns.

``We simply in Michigan have lost too much talent. We have to make sure we are a community of choice,'' he said. ``We figured out having one big pharmaceutical company was the death to us. ... We've got to build that safety net.''

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