Ohio Rustbelt Future Uncertain as Ford Mulls Taking $900 Million Expansion to Mexico

By Michael Sakal
Michael Sakal
Michael Sakal
Michael Sakal is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Ohio.
December 21, 2021 Updated: December 28, 2021

Just two years ago, the United States economy was roaring, gas prices were low, and the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t begun.

November 2019 was the perfect time for a four-year contract to be ratified between the United Autoworkers Union (UAW) and Ford Motor Company that would include a $900 million expansion of the Ohio assembly plant.

That investment was likely to involve a new truck—possibly an electric one—and would bring with it 1,400 new jobs to the plant, which produces the Econoline “Breakaways” and the heavy-duty F Series trucks.

The project, which would be completed by Sept. 15, 2023, could translate to more income for the municipalities and schools in the 49-year-old plant’s jurisdiction: Avon Lake, Sheffield Village, and Sheffield Lake.

It was the largest investment outlined in Ford’s contract with the autoworkers union for a single plant in the country. Overall, Ford planned to spend at least $6 billion at its 19 plants across the United States, according to the contract.

But on March 12, less than two months after President Joe Biden took office, Ford announced that the project could be sent to Mexico.

The company has been tight-lipped about it and has never said why the move might happen, Local 2000 President William Samples told The Epoch Times.

Local 2000 is a union that represents about 1,600 workers.

The Ohio assembly plant is located on Miller Road in a 3.7 million-square-foot facility covering 419 acres in the west Cleveland suburb near Lake Erie. It produces the F-650/750 medium-duty trucks, F-350/450/550 super duty chassis cabs, E-Series cutaways, and stripped chassis.

The uncertainty of the investment for the expansion defines the rust belt region of the U.S. Heartland that badly needs jobs and economic progress. Talks between Ford and the union at Ohio have been taking place “every day,” according to Samples.

“We don’t want to make things hard on ourselves,” he told The Epoch Times. “We plan to hold Ford to the contract they signed in 2019 that includes a $900 million investment, a new product, and 1,400 jobs.”

The plant generated about $2 million in income, or payroll tax, for the city of Avon Lake, Ohio, in 2020, and the expansion could double that, given the number of planned jobs associated with the project.

Sheffield Village received $562,000 in income tax from Ford in 2020, and Sheffield Lake received about $250,000, according to the mayors of those municipalities.

Epoch Times Photo
Avon Lake Mayor Greg Zilka said the city was disappointed when Ford announced that it may take a $900 million project, originally announced for the Ohio Assembly plant to Mexico. (City of Avon Lake)

“Obviously, we were disappointed when Ford announced that they could be taking the Ohio assembly project to Mexico and wouldn’t be adding the jobs here, but that’s just the way it is,” Avon Lake Mayor Greg Zilka told The Epoch Times.

“Ford always has been a great supporter of this city. The UAW is continuing to work with Ford and move forward.”

Other behind-the-scenes problems have been plaguing the U.S. auto industry, but Samples and Zilka said those problems haven’t greatly affected production at the Ohio plant yet.

Ongoing supply chain issues have included a microchip shortage for vehicles, specifically for the heavy-duty trucks in Ohio. Samples said that although there was a lack of chips, “it hadn’t really affected production of the trucks at the plant.”

However, the shortage has forced the plant to park and store its vehicles at a number of locations close by as they await the chips required to roll them off the lot. One of those locations is at Mercy Health Stadium, home of the Lake Erie Crushers, an independent baseball team in nearby Avon.

Epoch Times Photo
Supply chain issues have caused a microchip shortage in the U.S. auto industry. The Ford Ohio Assembly Plant in Avon Lake is storing hundreds of its heavy-duty trucks in parking lots. These trucks are parked outside Mercy Health Stadium in Avon, a neighboring city, on Dec. 16. (Michael Sakal/The Epoch Times)

Hundreds of trucks can be seen parked in the stadium’s lot off of Interstate 90.

To move them, computer chips are taken out of parked vehicles and put inside trucks that need to be stored. Once moved, the truck’s chip is then taken out and used to shift the next one.

A representative for the security company contracted to watch the vehicles, said of the trucks, “Oh, they come and go, but only a few leave.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and automakers have been continuing to review fuel economy and standard greenhouse emissions standards (also known as miles per gallon standards) being in line with all vehicles. That’s also taking more time, as the current administration wants to put more electric cars on the road.

In recent years, China has provided billions of dollars in subsidies to start-ups and Electric Vehicle (EV) manufacturers to develop and improve electric vehicles. China is pushing the companies to improve the efficiency, range, and performance of EVs, with a goal of having 40 percent of all of its car sales be for electric vehicles by 2030.

A 43-page report released by the Congressional Research Service outlines the ongoing debate between the transportation department and the auto corporations over the fuel economy and gas mileage standards and greenhouse emissions.

“Every car in America has to meet the miles per gallon, or fuel economy standards,” said Sheffield Village Mayor John Hunter, a retired UAW executive who last worked in Dearborn, Michigan.

Epoch Times Photo
Sheffield Village Mayor John Hunter remains positive that Ford will keep its word to continue with a $900 million investment for the Ohio Assembly Plant that included a new “next generation” vehicle. (John Hunter)

Hunter, who has been the mayor of Sheffield Village since 2008, is a former officer and president of United Autoworkers Local 454, which represented workers at Ford’s Lorain Assembly Plant. That plant closed in late 2005 after 47 years of operation.

Lorain produced vehicles such as the F-150 truck, Falcons, Fairlanes, Comets, Thunderbirds, and Econoline vans, once the fastest-selling vans in America.

Hunter later served as the president of the same UAW Local 2000 that represents workers at the assembly plant in Avon Lake.

Knowing the business, Hunter remains positive that things outlined in the contract between Ford and the union will work out.

“Look, the deadline for this to happen is Sept. 15, 2023,” Hunter said. “Ford has not violated the contract yet.

“I don’t believe that Ford is interested in breaking the commitment they made with the UAW in 2019. The world is sick right now. The coronavirus has hurt everything.

“I feel confident that by the time the contract is up, Ford will have lived up to it. Ford lives up to its word, and the UAW lives up to its word.”

Because of the $900 million investment, Avon Lake was also set to receive the Governor’s Trophy for the best economic development project in the Buckeye State in 2021. When the announcement came from Ford in March that the project was on hold and could be taken to Mexico, the Governor’s Trophy went elsewhere.

The holding pattern for major development in northeast Ohio has had a ripple effect.

The city of Avon, which neighbors Avon Lake and is strategically located along Interstate 90, was being contacted by realtors and developers inquiring about property or buildings available for suppliers connected to Ford, Avon Mayor Bryan Jensen told The Epoch Times.

“That’s stopped for now,” Jensen said. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Zilka’s sentiments echoed Jensen’s and perhaps those of many in the rustbelt region of northeast Ohio.

“That’s just the way it is,” Zilka said. “We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

A representative for Ford’s Communications and Marketing Department couldn’t provide any information on the status of the $900 million project or provide any timeline for a fuel economy standards agreement being reached.

Michael Sakal is an Epoch Times reporter who covers the state of Ohio.