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Zap-car firm tours Martinrea

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By Nathan L. McBroom

A manufacturer of electric automobiles toured the Martinrea Heavy Stamping facility in Shelbyville on Monday, raising questions about the future of what once was Shelbyville's largest employer.

The visit sparked speculation across the county that the local plant might be sold to up-and-coming Integrity Automotive, but Randall Waldman, Integrity's CEO, said he doesn't want to buy the whole plant but only parts of it after it shuts down.

Waldman, whose company manufactures Zap electric automobiles, had been informed that the plant would be closing within 30 days. He did not, however, identify his source for that information.

Martinrea's future has been the focus of much conversation because of repeated and significant cutbacks it has implemented during the auto industry's ongoing recession.

Holly Sum, Martinrea's human resources manager, declined to comment on the situation Thursday by twice hanging up on a reporter.

Waldman said his company is discussing buying some of the stamping equipment in the local facility to be installed in a new plant planned to be built in Simpson County.

Integrity, which had considered Shelby County before choosing Simpson, is awaiting a zoning approval for construction there.

Local Union President Dwayne Gilbert said Martinrea notified the union that the plant was being toured by Integrity as a potential buyer of the factory.

When Gilbert was informed about Integrity's intention towards buying only the equipment in the plant and not the plant itself, he said that was "180 degrees different" from what Martinrea personnel had told him.

He said it would be impossible for Martinrea to shut down in 30 days. The union's contract requires that the company at least give them a 60-day notice.

During the visit on Monday, state Sen. Gary Tapp, County Judge Executive Rob Rothenburger, and Shelby County Industrial and Development Foundation Executive Director Libby Adams were also in attendance.

It is not known why such high-ranking local officials would attend a walkthrough if Integrity were only going to buy equipment in the plant.

This is the second time the Integrity has toured the plant. During the first visit earlier this year, Waldman said they came in they were looking to buy a facility. But he said because of the union, it is "impossible to be competitive" and "not cost effective" to manufacturer automobiles there.

The plant, which was formerly owned by ThyssenKrupp Budd, is a stamping facility that produces sheet-metal automotive body stampings for car doors and fenders, primarily for the Ford Explorer sports-utility vehicle.

With gas prices hurting the sale of SUVs nationally, demand for once-popular Explorers has diminished rapidly, meaning the need for Martinrea to produce parts has decreased, too.

Late last month, union officials said if the situation at the plant doesn't improve, they believe the plant might shut down entirely.

Thirty-seven union workers lost their jobs late last month, and 47 more will be let go on Nov. 10. The cutbacks will leave the plant with 147 employees, down from about 1,100 (850 full-time) 8 years ago, when it was the largest employer in the county.

In an interview with The Sentinel-News in April, Sum denied persistent rumors that the plant will close by the end of the year.

She said the company has contractual agreements with customers until 2010, which the plant will fulfill.

Rothenburger said county officials have asked the company's management about their plans to shut down but have received no reply.

But he said management has told him that it has not been able to get new contracts for the plant.

"If they are planning to shut the plant down, I hope they let us know us soon so that we can post the property on our Web site," he said.