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It came as a disappointment but not a total surprise when Ford Motor Co. said it would move forward with plans to close its St. Paul assembly plant next year despite a last-minute in-person appeal Wednesday by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
"We knew it was a tough fight before [Wednesday], and we know it's going to be a tough fight going forward," said Coleman's spokesman Bob Hume, who did not make the trip.
Pawlenty and Coleman flew to Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., saddled with a monumental challenge, but they hoped a proposal that offered millions of dollars in incentives to the company would keep the plant open beyond the 2011 closing date Ford had set.
The Minnesota delegates were, in Coleman's words, "very hopeful" they could convince Ford to reverse its decision.
Pawlenty and Coleman said Ford officials stressed their need to aggregate production sites as well as to run plants that can operate around-the-clock, quickly switching between manufacturing different vehicle models in response to market demand.
The 125-acre plant on Ford Parkway in St. Paul is outfitted for making just one model of truck -- the Ranger -- that is fast losing popularity. Renovating the aging building would be costly, and the equipment is outdated.
The Ranger pickup, a light-duty truck that hasn't been redesigned in years, is slated to end its U.S. run when the plant closes in 2011.
Ford officials also said they are focused on operating plants near supply chains, a geographic challenge for the St. Paul facility, Pawlenty said.
"We appreciate Gov. Pawlenty and Mayor Coleman's continued support of Ford's St. Paul operations," Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said in a written statement. "Ford continues to concentrate on implementing the plan we initiated four years ago to streamline our plant operations and better leverage our global platforms. At this time, the Twin Cities Assembly Plant does not fit into our global manufacturing strategy."
Pawlenty and Coleman said they aren't giving up their five-year effort to save the 80-year-old plant in the Highland Park neighborhood.
"We didn't expect Ford to change their decision today," Coleman said Wednesday morning.
Pawlenty and Coleman are holding out hope for an about-face by the company. Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Dan McElroy, who also made the trip, was more blunt.
"The tone of the meeting [was] such that I'm not overly optimistic," McElroy said.
Although Minnesota officials have contacted other companies about the land and continue to have such discussions, McElroy said, Ford owns the property and selling rights. No exact date has been set for the plant's closure, and Pawlenty noted the plant has received a few extensions.
"We're just going to keep fighting until there's nothing left to do," Pawlenty said.
Ford has fared better than the other Big Three automakers, avoiding bankruptcy and finishing its most profitable first six months of the year in more than a decade, earning $2.6 billion in the second quarter, a point not lost on its Twin Cities workers.
Several Ford workers gathered Wednesday afternoon at the union office across from the plant, where union bargainer Shawn Milliron prepared to run a meeting.
"My reaction [to the news] was shock," Milliron said. "I expected a little more glimmer of hope. It's still setting in. At the same time, I don't want to give up hope. I don't want the membership to give up hope."
Milliron logged his 18th anniversary at the plant on Aug. 3. Wednesday afternoon, he was tasked with reigniting a waning flame in the roughly 750 workers who are left from a force that had numbered about 2,000 in recent years.
Milliron's dad started at the plant in 1960 and retired in 1990. Two of his uncles retired there. A brother worked at the facility until 2007, when he took a buyout.
"We're going to fight the battle," Milliron said before sweeping his arm out at the facility, where gleaming white trucks sprawled side-by-side across the massive lot.
"This is history. This is my family history here."
Staff writers Bob Von Sternberg and Baird Helgeson contributed to this report. Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708