By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
WARREN, Mich. -- The U.S.-led transformation of General Motors and Chrysler has left many grabbing for a piece of the fast-shrinking American auto industry.
Dealerships across the country suddenly find themselves competing to be the last man standing. Factories in the Midwest are vying for a dwindling number of brands. And city officials in towns that depend on auto production are polishing up their marketing pitches to woo the car giants.
There are few places where this high-pressure competition is on bigger display than in Warren, Mich., where Mayor James R. Fouts has mounted a very public campaign to persuade GM to move out of its digs in the gleaming Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit and relocate its headquarters to his city.
Fouts is not shy about offering reasons why he thinks Warren, with a population of 138,000 and about 15 miles from Detroit, trumps the car capital of the United States.
Lower crime rate. Lower taxes. And he's got plenty of space at the GM Tech Center, a sprawling research and development complex built in the 1950s that once employed 30,000 people and now serves half that many.
Fouts says he'll throw in tax incentives for GM to build a new office building. He said he plans to present a five-and-a-half-page offer to GM officials on Wednesday.
Ordinarily, such a pitch might be quickly dismissed. But in a recent conference call with reporters, GM chief executive Fritz A. Henderson would not rule it out. Henderson's remarks set off a week-long frenzy of local talk-radio shows, newspaper stories and news releases, where people debated the merits of a move.
"Ford is in Dearborn. Chrysler is in Auburn Hills," Fouts said. "It's not like I'm doing something un-American."
Fouts tried to win support from Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) and Ed Montgomery, Obama's point man for steering aid to communities dependent on the auto industry.
Neither exactly embraced the idea, but a source familiar with the restructuring discussions said the autos task force has not taken a position on the matter.
"That is a decision that will be made by the company," said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I am confident the company would want to talk to all the stakeholders about it and consider all options."
Detroit's newly elected mayor, Dave Bing, has tried to stay above the fray.
"At this time, the mayor has not been approached by GM," said Robert Warfield, the mayor's spokesman. If the automaker were to seriously consider a move "the mayor would do everything in his power to convince GM to stay in the city of Detroit. GM is a mainstay of the city of Detroit."
Fouts is popular in Warren, even if he has a reputation for being a bit eccentric.
He recently made headlines in local newspapers for insisting that he pay a $100 fine for exceeding the speed limit by five miles per hour, and collect two points on his license, after a police officer let him go with just a warning.
A government and psychology teacher at a local high school for 25 years, he beat his incumbent opponent by a landslide almost two years ago after raising just $37,000. He keeps about a dozen pictures of his heroes -- Frank Sinatra and president Harry Truman in his office.
Like Truman, Fouts runs a frugal government; he eliminated the city's Christmas fireworks show and refused to hire a Santa Claus, asking for volunteers instead. He sharply criticizes the gleaming, glassy City Hall on the north side of town built before he was mayor and is quick to show visitors the poorer, south side where he is working to eliminate blight. Warren has established a special inspection program to hand out tickets for overgrown yards, broken windows and peeling paint on houses.
At his rambler home on a neat, quiet street, just a few miles from the GM Tech Center, he apologized to a reporter for the smell of fish, saying it -- and popcorn -- are the staples of his daily diet. The son of a Dodge truck line worker, never married, Fouts doesn't like to give his age because he says he tends to date younger women. He is an insomniac and exercises twice a day -- walking four to six miles around town and working out on an elliptical trainer in his living room, next to the dining room table that he's turned into a desk, covered with papers and a computer. (One recent warm, spring evening he walked six miles to a dinner appointment in a pinstriped suit and dress shoes.)
As he showed a reporter around town, Fouts talked about his hopes of building a new $5.9 million community center, police station and library in the area.
"I don't need money for new houses," Fouts said. "I need a place that shows people we're putting money into the run-down, worn-out part of our city."
The mayor, who drives a $30,000 black Chrysler Charger, recently instituted a buy-American-car rule for city employees -- a move that has not gone over particularly well with the workers. But while waiting for a light to turn green, a car pulled up next to Fouts, and the driver rolled down his window: "Nice car, mayor," he shouted.
"It's all about 'Buy American,' " Fouts yelled back.
Fouts said he worries that if GM files for bankruptcy protection, it will hit his auto-dependent town hard. GM is his number one taxpayer, bringing in $8 million a year, followed by Chrysler, which pays $4 million. Getting GM's headquarters, Fouts said, would boost Warren's status and prestige and bring in new people who might buy up the mini-McMansions in neighborhoods abandoned by bankrupt developers.
Will it happen? He's not sure.
"It makes sense to me," he said. But, he cautioned, "the political structure is very uptight about this. Will the political prevail over basic sense? I don't know. I'm going to do everything I can."