Five months ago Ed Montgomery, President Barack Obama’s emissary to stricken auto towns, awarded Fenton, Missouri, $2.1 million in federal money to help find a tenant for a vacant Chrysler plant.
The factory, which in 2006 was the area’s biggest employer with a payroll of about 6,000 making minivans and Dodge Rams, remains empty, and Mayor Dennis Hancock still has the $2.1 million.
“We’re really struggling with what exactly we’re going to use that money for,” Hancock said in an interview.
The town of 4,360 located 20 minutes southwest of St. Louis won’t have Montgomery to help it decide. He resigned to take a position at Georgetown University, leaving behind not only a befuddled Missouri mayor but questions about what the job created 16 months ago is supposed to accomplish.
To some, like Patrick Anderson, chief executive officer of the Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing, Michigan, the position may be more about politics and public relations than substance.
“Sooner or later, the person in this job will be revealed as having no power,” said Anderson, who has worked as an adviser to the major auto companies as well as elected Michigan officials. “The position needs to go away.”
Obama created the job in March 2009, as he was deciding what to do about ailing automakers General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, which later went bankrupt and were taken over by the government.
Formally called the White House Director of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers, Obama said its mission was to “lift up the hardest-hit areas by using the unprecedented levels of funding in our Recovery Act and through the government to create new manufacturing jobs and new businesses where they’re needed most.”
Montgomery, 55, spent his final day on the job last week, accompanying Obama to Detroit-area GM and Chrysler plants that the president cited as evidence of the industry’s improvement. Obama visits a Ford Motor Co. (F) factory in Chicago today.
Montgomery says he made more than 50 trips to 35 cities in Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and other states crippled by the auto industry crisis. He listened to the concerns of residents and officials, gave advice and lent a hand navigating federal agencies, by helping with Environmental Protection Agency regulations, for example.
His job, which pays $177,000 a year, was to “make things comes through faster and more efficiently” for towns that have lost auto workers, he said in an interview.
Visit to Fenton
The auto-recovery council that Montgomery headed, which has a seven-person staff and $2.3 million annual budget, lists as accomplishments the awarding of millions of dollars in grants to retrain unemployed workers, and beginning the cleanup of a closed auto plant in Flint, Michigan.
Citing the industry’s addition of about 60,000 jobs since the middle of last year, Montgomery said, “We’ve made some progress and we’ve made some investment in these communities, but the process of working with them is not done.”
Part of his job was to hand out government money, like Fenton’s $2.1 million. The funds come from agencies such as the Labor Department, which has awarded more than $50 million for training auto workers, and from the economic stimulus program, which set aside $75 million for auto communities.
Montgomery’s February visit was “a great opportunity for local and national politicians to get some face time in front of television cameras,” said Mayor Hancock, who doesn’t represent a political party because small towns in Missouri have nonpartisan elections. “Everyone was standing up there making speeches.”
Help for Delaware
Fenton already had spent money trying to sell the plant to no avail, and last month commissioned a study on how to use the federal funds.
Kenosha, Wisconsin, Mayor Keith Bosman said he didn’t get the one thing he was looking for when Montgomery visited his city in June: “Money, money, money.”
Montgomery came to the city “to listen,” Bosman said, and didn’t hand out any aid. “We’ve got a very detailed idea or plan of what we need here,” said Bosman, a Democrat, whose city is also trying to redevelop an abandoned Chrysler plant.
Delaware Governor Jack Markell said Montgomery was “very helpful” after GM decided to close its factory in his state in June 2009. Montgomery contacted Markell in May to inform him that the federal government was dedicating $14 million to fix up the plant.
“Within a few days, he brought us a huge commitment to help us deal with a very difficult situation,” Markell, a Democrat, said in an interview. “The real value added was not a check from the federal government, but a real coordinated response from all the agencies.”
The White House has yet to name a replacement for Montgomery, who on Aug. 15 will begin his new job as dean of Georgetown’s Public Policy Institute. Most of Montgomery’s career has been in academia.
“For somebody who has been in the university world, Georgetown is an excellent place,” said Montgomery, who has three kids and likes to ride Harleys in his spare time.
Anderson of Anderson Economic Group says American taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to foot the bill for a Montgomery successor.
“There isn’t much substantial that anyone in that job can do to save the auto communities,” Anderson said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Holly Rosenkrantz in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org