Jeep plant idling Tuesday will cost 1,200 jobs. Some residents fear it may turn Belvidere from an auto town into a ghost town. – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

When the whistle blows at the Belvidere Assembly Plant on Tuesday, it may signal the end of an era.

For nearly six decades, the massive auto plant has been the economic engine of the small river city near Rockford, churning out everything from the Plymouth Fury and the Chrysler New Yorker to the Dodge Dart.

But after several years of downsizing and dwindling demand for its current product, the Jeep Cherokee, Stellantis is idling the plant “indefinitely,” laying off the last 1,200 workers and perhaps closing it for good.

“Everyone’s on edge,” said Kevin Logan, president of UAW Local 1268, which represents the remaining plant workers about to be laid off. “It’s going to be catastrophic for this community.”

Kevin Logan, President of UAW Local 1268, which represents the remaining plant workers about to be laid off, said: “It’s going to be catastrophic for this community.”

The Belvidere plant became the exclusive home for the Jeep Cherokee in 2017. The region’s largest employer at its zenith, the plant had 5,464 workers on three shifts at the start of 2019, after building 270,000 of the SUVs during the previous year. But the plant has been in dramatic decline since then, slashing jobs and eliminating shifts as demand for its sole product waned.

Last year, Jeep Cherokee sales fell 55% to 40,322 vehicles, according to Stellantis.

Stellantis was created by the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and Peugeot of France in January 2021. Like many automakers, Stellantis is gearing up to convert from combustion engines to electric vehicles. It is aiming to have EVs account for 50% of all U.S. sales by 2030.

Sources said Belvidere was lined up to transition to an electric vehicle plant, specifically the new STLA large EV platform for the next generation Charger and Challenger. Instead, Stellantis announced in June the vehicles will be built in Windsor, Ontario, dashing the hopes of Belvidere boosters and dealing a major blow to the state’s EV manufacturing ambitions.

Stellantis is also building a $5 billion battery plant in Windsor.

“It was a big slap in the face,” said Logan, a lifelong Belvidere resident and 29-year plant veteran. “They were dangling the carrot in front of us and pulled it away. I rack my brain several times every day, driving myself crazy trying to figure out what is the fate of this facility, why is the company doing this and what is their endgame.”

In December, Stellantis announced the indefinite layoffs and the plant idling. The final shift is scheduled to punch out Feb. 28, the 5-million-square-foot auto plant will go dark and Belvidere will face an uncertain future.

For Belvidere, a city of 25,000 rising up from farm fields about 75 miles northwest of Chicago, the fear is palpable.

“Everyone’s talking, ‘is it going to be a ghost town in Belvidere?’” said Patty Ibraimi, owner of Uncle John’s Family Restaurant, a longtime local gathering spot. “It’s definitely going to be an issue if they don’t reopen.”

Ashley Williams, right, along with her twins, Emma and Paxton, 4, and her grandmother, Carol Kamholtz, arrive for lunch at Uncle John’s Family Restaurant on Feb. 23, 2023, in Belvidere. Ashley is nervous for her mother and stepdad, both of whom work at the Belvidere Assembly Plant.

Most of the workers at the Belvidere plant are hourly employees who could be eligible for a combination of state unemployment and supplemental unemployment benefits. There will be no severance package, but Stellantis will “make every effort to place indefinitely laid off employees in open full-time positions as they become available,” Stellantis spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said in an email.

That could mean uprooting for plants in Ohio, Michigan or points more distant. Workers who decline the transfer offer lose all their unemployment benefits, retaining only their seniority if Belvidere reopens under Stellantis, Logan said.

Those terms were part of a four-year UAW contract set to expire in September. Stellantis can’t permanently close the Belvidere plant until then, potentially leaving the laid-off workforce in limbo until the automaker decides its fate.

Stellantis could use Belvidere as a bargaining chip in union negotiations by agreeing to put a product back in the plant in return for other concessions, according to industry analysts. That vehicle is unlikely to be the next-generation Jeep Cherokee, which is headed to the Stellantis plant in Toluca, Mexico, said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at AutoForecast Solutions, a Pennsylvania-based research firm.

The Toluca plant is also home to the Jeep Compass, which moved there from Belvidere in 2017 to make way for the Cherokee. Stellantis would not confirm where the Cherokee will be built going forward.

“We will make an announcement regarding the next generation Jeep Cherokee in due course,” Tinson said.

The Belvidere Assembly Plant is pictured Feb. 2, 2012, when the automaker was planning to hire more than 1,600 workers to build the 2013 Dodge Dart alongside the Jeep Patriot and Compass SUVs.

Fiorani said Belvidere will likely remain idle until at least September. Down the road, Fiorani sees a dearth of products that could go to the Belvidere plant after it missed out on the STLA EV platform.

Belvidere is the only one of a dozen Stellantis plants in North America without a product in the pipeline, Fiorani said. All of the plants, he said, will eventually produce EVs.

Stellantis provided a glimpse of that EV future at the Chicago Auto Show in February, where the Dodge Charger Daytona SRT EV concept car was on display along with the last of Charger and Challenger gas-powered muscle cars.

The Illinois auto manufacturing industry also includes Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, the Rivian EV plant in Normal and Lion Electric, a startup building EV buses and trucks in Joliet, as well as a handful of parts suppliers.

The state has been aggressively pursuing EV development, enacting legislation in an effort to get manufacturers and suppliers to locate in Illinois, with decidedly mixed results. It has been lobbying hard for Stellantis to electrify the Belvidere plant.

Seeing the Stellantis EV platform, thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in investment head to Canada while Belvidere sits idle was not part of the state’s development playbook.

“I certainly don’t like the idea of an indefinitely idled plant,” said Dan Seals, CEO of Intersect Illinois, the state’s public-private economic development arm. “I want them to be able to retool it and use it for EVs. Just having it sit there out of use, that’s the worst outcome from my perspective.”

Jeep Cherokees line a parking lot outside the Belvidere Assembly Plant, where the vehicle is produced, on Dec. 4, 2018.

Seals said Stellantis is “still trying to figure out if there’s an option” to power up the Belvidere plant after it closes in March. He cited the existing workforce, infrastructure and cost efficiencies of converting it to an EV plant as a compelling case for Stellantis, or another automaker.

The state has already received an inquiry from a site consultant, Seals said.

“I think you’re going to find a lot of interest in that site,” Seals said. “There’s a lot of demand for sites just like the one that we’ve got in Belvidere.”

Illinois is beefing up its financial incentives to lure or keep automakers in the state in the wake of Stellantis’ decision to idle the plant.

In February, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Invest in Illinois Act, which created a $400 million “closing fund” to incentivize EV manufacturers and other businesses to locate, expand or remain in the state through favorable financing.

The 2021 Reimagining Electric Vehicles in Illinois Act incentivizes EV manufacturers to locate in the state through tax credits. The legislation was amended in December — 10 days after Stellantis announced it was idling the Belvidere plant — upping the incentive to 75% of state income tax for automakers that retain employees as they transition to EV production.

Last month, the legislation was renamed the Reimagining Energy and Vehicles in Illinois Act and expanded to incorporate renewable energy projects.

Illinois is still lagging behind neighboring states such as Michigan, which approved a $1 billion economic incentive fund in December 2021 aimed at EV manufacturing development. Last year, Michigan attracted more than $14 billion in electric vehicle and battery investments, according to the state.

“The incentive conversation is one place where we’re at a disadvantage,” Seals said. “But at the end of the day, incentives are just one of many factors about why a company locates.”

The center of the Illinois EV ecosystem is Rivian, which bought an idled Mitsubishi plant for $16 million in 2017, completed a $1.2 billion renovation and breathed new life into Normal, a college town about 130 miles south of Chicago.

California-based Rivian launched production in September 2021. It now has 7,000 employees building an electric pickup truck, SUV and Amazon delivery van in a formerly vacant, 3.3 million-square-foot auto plant.

Rivian has struggled to ramp up production, narrowly missing a downwardly revised target of 25,000 vehicles last year. It had 114,000 electric pickup trucks and SUVs on back order as of November.

Canadian EV truck manufacturer Lion Electric invested $70 million to convert a 900,000-square-foot Joliet warehouse into a factory to produce up to 20,000 electric commercial trucks and buses a year. The first EV school bus rolled off the line in November, and the company has more than 2,000 on order, Lion spokesman Brian Alexander said.

Lion, which is in line to receive $7.9 million in state tax credits if it meets investment and job creation goals, has about 100 employees, with plans to hire 1,000 workers as it ramps up to full capacity over the next four years, Alexander said.

“We expect it to be the largest dedicated medium- and heavy-duty EV truck manufacturing facility in the country,” Alexander said.

It remains to be seen whether the Belvidere Assembly Plant will undergo a similar EV transformation under Stellantis — or another automaker — after the factory goes dark in March.

For Belvidere, industrial roots run as deep as the abundant farm fields that surround it. Beyond a quaint downtown straddling the Kishwaukee River, where colorful murals adorn the sides of its brick buildings, a factory has long loomed large.

Colorful murals adorn the sides of buildings on State Street in Belvidere's downtown on May 1, 2019.

Belvidere’s previous manufacturing giant, the National Sewing Machine Co., set up shop in 1886 and was one of the region’s largest employers for more than half a century, with about 2,000 workers at its peak. It closed in 1957 and most of the expansive factory, which took up 26 acres, including an iconic tower and foundry, was demolished.

“The factory was huge,” said Anna Pivoras, executive director of the Boone County Museum of History in downtown Belvidere. “There’s only just a couple of vestiges left of it.”

In 1965, Chrysler turned Belvidere into an auto town when it opened the assembly plant, with a white Plymouth Fury II sedan the first vehicle to roll off the line. Over the years, the plant was retooled several times, making everything from the compact Dodge Neon to the full-size Chrysler New Yorker.

A Plymouth Fury II, the first car to roll off the line at the Chrysler plant in 1965, is on display at the Boone County Museum of History in Belvidere on May 1, 2019.

During Chrysler’s bankruptcy in 2009, the plant was down to 200 employees before Fiat and a government bailout rescued it and the company.

By 2012, fresh off a $700 million investment to gear up for production of the Dodge Dart, Fiat Chrysler’s chairman, Sergio Marchionne, visited the plant to announce the addition of a third shift and 1,800 workers.

The plant’s future seemed secure when it became the exclusive home for the Jeep Cherokee in 2017. It was soon hitting on all cylinders, with more than 5,000 workers building 270,000 of the SUVs in 2018.

But Fiat Chrysler eliminated the third shift in 2019, downsizing 1,400 workers out of a job amid declining demand for the Cherokee. Then the pandemic hit, disrupting production with closures and supply chain issues.

Stellantis took the keys to the factory at the start of 2021. The plant was mostly closed from March through October of that year due to the semiconductor shortage. When production resumed in November, the plant was down to one shift and about 2,100 employees.

Workers assemble Jeep Patriot and Compass SUVs at Chrysler's Belvidere Assembly Plant on Feb. 2, 2012.

The ranks were thinned by smaller cuts last year, dwindling to 1,350 workers before Stellantis announced the indefinite idling in December.

Within days, that employee count will be zero.

Pam Lopez-Fettes, executive director of Growth Dimensions, the economic development organization for Belvidere and Boone County, said about 2,000 jobs will be lost from the plant’s idling, including layoffs at nearby suppliers such as Syncreon.

The impact, she said, will stretch far beyond Belvidere, with the workforce coming from a 70-mile radius.

While she is hopeful that Stellantis, or another automaker, will restart the auto plant, she believes the area is less dependent on the plant than it used to be.

“Belvidere, Boone County has diversified,” Lopez-Fettes said. “We have very strong distribution and logistics that’s growing, and we also have food processing that is growing.”

In the broader Rockford region, the aerospace industry is now the largest employer, followed by logistics and advanced manufacturing. Lopez-Fettes said she has already been contacted by a number of area manufacturing businesses looking to hire displaced autoworkers.

The imminent plant idling is nonetheless causing some anxiety at Uncle John’s Family Restaurant, a Belvidere fixture since 1992.

Tia Rushiti, center, speaks with her husband, Mo, left, and daughter Besa, 14, during her shift at Uncle John’s Family Restaurant on Feb. 23, 2023, in Belvidere. Tia is a former third-shift worker at the Belvidere Assembly Plant who was laid off. Her husband still works there and is concerned about losing his job after 17 years. The couple have two high schoolers.

“We all thrive on that huge plant,” said Ibraimi, 46, who grew up in Belvidere and began working at her family-owned restaurant when she was a teenager. “They’re a big part of the community, we have a lot of people that work there. When they’re working, they’re eating, they’re going out. And for them to close completely, it’s devastation for the town and the businesses.”

The restaurant launched just before the Plymouth and Dodge Neon in 1994, which boosted employment and created a steady base of customers for the restaurant. Business slowed during the Great Recession, and whenever the plant was down for retooling

The arrival of the Jeep Cherokee in 2017 was a boon for Boone County and the restaurant, which completed an extensive remodeling last summer. Then came the December plant idling announcement from Stellantis.

“We’re already feeling it a little bit because they’re getting ready to close,” Ibraimi said. “We have regulars that work there, but you’re not seeing them as much. They know they’re getting ready to get laid off.”

One of those getting laid off is Ibraimi’s brother, a 20-year plant veteran who left the family restaurant business for a job on the assembly line. In a city of 25,000, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t related to a current or former worker at the auto plant.

While Belvidere and the state’s economic development organizations continue to make the case for Stellantis to turn the lights back on at the plant, the company remains noncommittal.

“The company is working to identify other opportunities to repurpose the Belvidere facility,” Tinson said. “We have nothing to announce at this time.”

Inside the Boone County Museum of History is a white, four-door Plymouth Fury II sedan. Cordoned off by a white chain stanchion, a large sign proudly proclaims the rear-wheel drive sedan the “1st Car Built Here.”

The car, which carried a sticker price of $3,206.90 — including extras such as an AM radio, an electric clock and undercoating — was minted July 7, 1965.

“The Plymouth Fury is the first car off the assembly line,” said museum director Pivoras. “It is the most popular artifact in our entire museum — we’ve had people travel here just to see it. It’ll always be here.”

Many locals are hoping it won’t be joined by a Jeep Cherokee circa February 28, 2023, as the last vehicle built in Belvidere.

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