Tennessee hamlet awaits GM's coming

General Motors appears ready to stake its future on this tiny Tennessee town, hoping to beat the Japanese in the worldwide struggle for survival in the automobile business. GM, the world's largest automaker, plans to establish a $3.5 billion factory utilizing state-of-the-art technology and Japanese-inspired management techniques to produce its new Saturn line.

The Saturn plant is GM's attempt to prove that a subcompact can be made in the United States and still turn a profit. GM began advertising for jobs in the Saturn plant, comparing the enterprise to mankind's first steps on the moon.

GM had scheduled an official announcement on the site for early this week. But even last week, townspeople in this farming hamlet south of Nashville (population: 1,200) were proceeding on the assumption that theirs would be the chosen location.

Maury County, in which Spring Hill is located, has an unemployment rate slightly higher than the national average, and observers here say young people have tended to leave after graduating from school. The new factory will vastly boost economic development and employment in the region, but most of the actual on-site Saturn workers are likely to be relocated from the Detroit area.

``If we don't get a shot at those jobs, we should get a shot at the satellite plants that will surely spring up,'' says Joan Jackson, manager of First Farmers and Merchants National Bank, Spring Hill Branch. ``Anybody that has a business here has to be thrilled.''

The plant will be only 30 miles from Nissan Motor Company's American production facility at Smyrna, Tenn. The Nissan plant is nonunion and has been touted as an example of Japanese industrial know-how and American labor cooperation.

Last week GM hammered out an innovative labor-management agreement with the United Automobile Workers that calls for a high degree of union flexibility and a role for workers in the Saturn factory decisionmaking.

The UAW's accession to the pact indicates willingness on labor's part to do what it can to keep the US auto industry competitive with the Japanese. (Since the Spring Hill plant will be unionized, the UAW may also win a base from which to organize the nearby Nissan workers.)

Some 6,000 auto workers, most of them drawn from the rolls of GM's 400,000 current workers and the thousands who have been laid off in recent years, will be employed at the Saturn plant.

The first Saturn cars are expected to hit the market by 1989.

Dozens of states courted GM, hoping to win the factory, jobs, and inevitable economic boom that would go with Saturn. But it appears that Tennessee -- a ``right-to-work'' state with a stable economy in the heart of the South -- has won.

``We're old-time Southern country people; I don't blame them for wanting to come south,'' says Ms. Jackson, the bank manager. ``We need new industry. It would be great if some of the work force would come from here.''

The Saturn subsidiary's headquarters, which alone will cost about $1.5 billion, will be located in the Detroit suburb of Troy, GM officials say.

``I don't see a substantial movement away from Michigan in the foreseeable future,'' Richard Block, director of Michigan State University's school of labor and industrial relations, told the Monitor. ``Most of their investment -- their quieter investment -- is where they are'' already.

``By moving it there [Spring Hill], you will not run into so much friction from people saying, `That's not the way we did it before,' '' says Thomas E. Lent, automotive analyst with Prudential-Bache Securities.

``They may feel they need an entirely new work force,'' agrees Thomas O'Grady, senior director at Chase Econometrics automotive service.

In the long run, however, the plant's relative seclusion may make it more difficult for Saturn's labor practices to spread to other plants, Mr. O'Grady adds. ``If it's down there, I'm not sure there'll be that much of an impact.''

Spring Hill has been swarming with reporters, real-estate speculators, and lawyers since rumors began last week.

Mayor George C. Jones, who is a homebuilder and owns a building-supply store, says farmland had been selling for $1,500 to $2,000 an acre and is now considered worth $5,000 to $10,000 an acre: ``It's like a windstorm blew through here and blew everybody's deeds away and, they wrote new ones with new names on them.''

Spring Hill's schools, police force, water and electric supplies will have to be adjusted. Six-thousand families means 18,000 people added to what Ms. Jackson calls a ``little two-red-light town.''

The Saturn facility is expected to consume 5 million gallons of water a day, which will mean expediting completion of the $240 million Columbia Dam on Duck River. The dam has been stalled since 1983 due to environmental concerns.

Paul H. Williams, chief of a two-man police force, say area residents ``are almost 100 percent in favor of the plant,'' but ``we've got a few people that don't want any of it. People are used to a small town.''

Ms. Jackson, who grew up in Spring Hill (she now lives in Columbia, 10 miles away), said her father told her he was ``not so gung-ho'' about the plant. She pointed out that it would raise property values, but he replied, ``What do I care? I'm not going to move.''

Chicago correspondent Laurent Belsie contributed to this report.

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