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Pioneer Editorial: If not Ford, then why not Toyota?

The announcement Thursday that Ford Motor Co. plans to close its St. Paul truck manufacturing plant in 2008 comes as a devastating blow not only to the St. Paul economy, but also to the Minnesota economy. The Twin Cities assembly plant employs about 1,750 hourly workers and 135 salaried.

The maker of the Ford Ranger com-pact pickup, the St. Paul plant has been struggling with sales of the vehicle declining sharply in recent years.

Still, the state of Minnesota, behind Gov. Tim Pawlenty, has been active in convincing Ford to keep that plant open even if under a different mission. Such efforts staved off a first-round announcements of Ford plant closures, but unfortunately isn't strong enough to prevent an eventual closure.

"The news is disappointing, but not unexpected given dramatically declining Ford Ranger sales," Pawlenty said Thursday. "Minnesota proposed our own innovative ideas to keep the plant open. We were also willing to meet or exceed any offered incentive package. In the end, however, Ford indicated its decision was not about subsidies or bailouts, but about larger economic trends."

Among those incentives were proposals for a joint partnership with Ford to use the plant to produce hybrid vehicles -- especially those with flexible fuel engines that can use E-85, the ethanol-blended gasoline that makes use of Minnesota corn or other bio products while decreasing our dependence on foreign oil.

The Pawlenty administration indicated its desire Thursday to continue to work with Ford over the next two years to keep some kind of presence in Minnesota.

But with the specialty market Minnesota offers with its ethanol plants and that the state is actively engaged in promoting global competition, perhaps now is the time -- dare we say -- that we open the doors to global competition.

While "Buy American" is always important, we have a willing automotive workforce that will be without jobs in two years, an assembly plant geared to efficiently make vehicles, and an important reason -- energy conservation.

If Ford is not willing to take up Minnesota's offer in making hybrid cars, now is the time for the state to work with Ford to sell its plant to someone who will -- Toyota, Hyundai, or anyone else -- who is willing to invest in the technology. Brazil nearly exclusively manufactures flex-fuel vehicles, and there is no reason why Minnesota can't be a leader in this country.

Hopefully, when 2008 comes, St. Paul will not have to deal with mass layoffs but rather a transition to another manufacturer who will invest in Minnesota's manufacturing assets and well-trained workforce.