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End Of The Line For The `Home Of The Corvette'?

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Henry "Red" Hoerchler is one of General Motors Corp.'s gypsies. When the auto giant closed a St. Louis assembly plant in 1981, he uprooted his family and moved to Bowling Green, Ky., to help build Corvette sports cars. But after 2 1/2 years of unsuccessfully trying to sell his old house in Breese, Ill., Red decided to move the family back. To see them, he has had to commute 520 miles round-trip every weekend for the past decade. "It's not a good situation," he lamented one recent afternoon, over a can of Busch at Dollie's tavern near the plant. But, he added, "You go where the job is."

Red might have to decamp again soon. The Corvette plant in Bowling Green is one of several inefficient factories that likely will be shut in the latest round of GM closings, scheduled to be announced as early as Dec. 7. If it gets the ax, many of the factory's 1,122 blue- and white-collar workers could lose their jobs. The closing would also shake up Bowling Green: GM is the third-largest employer in this quiet community of 45,000, located two hours southwest of Louisville. The auto maker is also its biggest taxpayers.

DEAD LAST. United Auto Workers officials and community leaders are optimistic that the factory will survive. "We're one of the few plants making money," asserts Billy G. Jackson, president of UAW Local 2164. And such folks as Dennis Griffin, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, figure it is unlikely to close because GM completely renovated the facility after taking it over from a Chrysler Corp. parts subsidiary in 1980. Saturn could also step in to keep the plant running.

But there are reasons to worry about its future. The Corvette plant is the least productive Big Three assembly operation in North America, says a recent study by Harbour & Associates, a Troy (Mich.) consulting firm. It requires 11.37 workers to assemble each car, more than twice what Honda Motor Co. uses for the Acura NSX sports car. Despite the extra attention, quality is below the industry average. The factory also runs just one shift instead of the usual two.

Losing the Corvette, which may be built in St. Therese, Que., instead, would leave a gaping hole in Bowling Green's economy. The annual payroll of $48.7 million represents nearly one-fourth of the county's total manufacturing wages. Then there's the ripple effect: If the plant goes, an additional 6,600 non-GM jobs could go with it, the Commerce Dept. figures. "The majority of our customers are GM workers," says Tonia Bowles, a clerk at Barren River Beverages, near the plant. "If we didn't have them, we would be hurt bad."

Indeed, the closing would be a psychological blow to a community whose identity is so closely tied to the car. The cover of the tourist commission's guide proudly proclaims Bowling Green as "Home of the Corvette." About 40,000 visitors tour the plant each year. And backers of a National Corvette Museum--set to go up next year with the help of $1.5 million in local donations--hope to draw 500,000. But "without the Corvette plant, the museum would lose its greatest attraction," laments Robert E. Aldridge, president of American National Bank & Trust Co.

Back at Dollie's bar, Corvette workers are trying not to think too much about their uncertain future. Many, like Red Hoerchler, have lived through closings before. After years of broken promises and sour relations with GM management, they've developed tough skins. Many say they're planning Christmas shopping sprees, just as in past years. Declares Dave Evans: "You can't let General Motors dictate your life." But neither can these workers dictate the fate of their factory.David Woodruff in Bowling Green

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