Ohio community faces tough choices as General Motors plant prepares to close


Nese's Country Cafe opens around dawn just down the street from the GM plant that is the center of life in Lordstown, Ohio. A group of retirees meets there every Friday morning. Some worked at a plant that has endured so long, they doubt it's really shutting down.

"Forty-one years I've been there, 41 years I've heard this and I don't believe they're gonna close," said GM retiree David Farcas. He's hoping GM will revive the plant that supported his family.

"Put two girls through college, have a new car, two new cars every year … got a beautiful home. I did everything a rich man does 'cause I was rich. General Motors money," Farcas said.

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This plant is so huge that since the 1960s, it has produced 16 million vehicles. So huge that we had to drive five miles to go in a loop around it.

Lordstown. Home of the Cruze. You get a sense of the pride in this community from that sign. The Cruze was a big part of General Motors' recovery after the great recession, a popular car for years. Now GM is ending North American production because smaller cars are less popular and that's bad news for this plant -- no matter how well the workers have done their jobs.

It's also bad news for every business that serves GM workers, like Our Place Diner. Manager Jackie Woodward watched in recent years as GM laid off her husband, then her brother and then everybody else.

"It's the majority of everything in this community," Woodward said. "My heart was broken … It's hard to see people that you've known your whole life. You've grown up with them and then all of a sudden they have to pick up and they have to move their families."

We invited Ohio's senators to meet us for lunch. Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman are from different parties but are friends who share a talent for working a room and a desire to keep the plant open. Brown recalls President Obama's auto bailout.

"How many taxpayers saved this company? And then they get this huge tax cut," Brown said.

Portman argues GM's prospects should be improving.

"A few things have happened just in the last year in the Trump administration that would make it more advantageous to invest here," Portman said.

Both met GM chief executive Mary Barra who said she was open to ideas. For now, laid-off workers can transfer.

"But it's not that simple. I mean you own a house in Youngstown, and there's a plant closing or significant layoffs, your chances of selling that house aren't very high," Brown said.

President Trump visited Trumbull County in 2017 and promised residents industrial jobs are coming back to the area, even urging people to not sell their homes. That hasn't turned out to be the case.

"Well, some businesses have been helped a lot by his steel tariffs," Portman said. "There's a lot of great research and development going on here now. A lot of innovation, advanced manufacturing is big. So there's some positive things. But this one is a – it's a punch in the gut."

The restaurant manager at lunch put us in touch with some GM workers who've agreed to meet for dinner at the Sunrise Inn in the old manufacturing city of Warren, Ohio. So many workers came to share their stories that we had to pull up extra chairs.

"For me and my wife, having a disabled daughter, our whole support system for her is here," said Richard Marsh. "It's been a long fight with the schools and with getting everything to where it is, it's taken us 10 years and thousands of dollars that if we have to move is gonna go back to square one … I either go there or quit General Motors. After 25 years, that's a hard pill to swallow."

Moving is hard when others need you to stay.

"I take care of my elderly parents… it's hard. I take them to their appointments, go to their pharmacy, get them their meds," said Magali Pagan-Santiago.

Melinda and Donnie Minor, who both work at GM, said they are for sure not moving. For Donnie, it would mean being away from his son and for Melinda, it would mean her kids would be away from their dad.

"I'm not doing that," said Donnie.

About half of the GM workers we sat down with in that conversation voted for President Trump. Some still back him but Richard Marsh is like this Ohio county -- he voted for Obama then for Trump and is deciding where to place his hope next.

"My loyalty is done to either party. You know, I'm gonna vote for who I think is talking right at the right time," Marsh said.

For the people at that table, with almost 150 years of experience, the job was more than a job. It was about the people.

"You spend more time with those people than you do your own family," Donnie Minor said.

"We are a family," Marsh added.

Other jobs are coming to that part of Ohio. A retail distribution center will hire about 1,000, but likely for lower pay. GM is also offering workers retraining and it's possible the auto plant could revive – Tesla has expressed interest – but for now the GM workers face a choice between their work family and their real families.