There’s hope for Connersville after Visteon, experts say

Connersville has more problems than Visteon Corp.’s announcement yesterday that it will close its 890-worker automotive heating and air-conditioning components plant in September.

The small city east of Indianapolis also no longer has an economic development director. Charlie Dibble, who led the Connersville-Fayette County Economic Development Group, left just one week ago by mutual agreement of the board, said Chairman Pete Bell, who owns a Connersville logistics company.

Dibble could not be reached for comment. Bell said the decision was reached during a 90-day probation period that started after Dibble was hired.

The 890 workers who will lose jobs were all that remained at a site that employed as many as 3,500 as recently as the late 1990s. Formerly a division of Ford Motor Co., Visteon is ridding itself of plants to try to stanch losses. The Connersville plant had too much unused capacity, Visteon said yesterday.

Economic development experts say Connersville, which has a population of 15,400, doesn’t have to founder in bad news.

The city has a good shot at landing parts suppliers to the $550 million Honda Motor Co. assembly plant under construction less than an hour’s drive away in Greensburg, said Tom Miller, a Greenfield economic development consultant who wrote the state’s economic development strategy.

“Those workers would be a valuable asset for a number of companies,” Miller said. Otherwise, Connersville might find success pursuing such hot industries as alternative energy and health care, he said.

Greg Wathen, executive director of Perry County Development Corp. in southern Indiana, said auto suppliers might avoid hiring many former Visteon workers out of fear they would try to organize a union. Most suppliers to Honda and other Japanese automakers are nonunion.

Nevertheless, Wathen said, consolidators such as former steel magnate Wilbur Ross that are snapping up auto parts suppliers might be interested in using the building. Making a profit while competing against foreign parts suppliers and their attendant low wages and benefits would be difficult, he stressed.

Bell, the Connersville development chairman, said various parties showed interest in the 1.3-million-square-foot building before the closing was announced, and that calls have been pouring in today from real estate brokers and others wanting to consider the property.

The plant is in “excellent” condition, Bell said, because Visteon maintained it well.

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