Jesse Snyder
Jesse Snyder
Opinion Page Editor

Why economic developers love auto events

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Wherever auto executives gather, so do people trying to land the next new plant location or retain the car jobs they’ve already won.

The economic development folks hit Detroit in droves this week. They swarmed press and industry days at the Detroit auto show. Yesterday alone at the Automotive News World Congress, I ran into four teams: the states of Virginia and Georgia and the countries of Canada and Macedonia.

It’s always sunny in each of these places, you know. Just ask.

But under the relentlessly bright smiles, handy facts and ready introductions to people who can expedite permits, train workers and save you money on your investment, these are battle-hardened road warriors.

They play both defense and offense.

Canada is trying to hang onto the auto jobs it has. Most auto production experts expect new North American capacity to go to the U.S. and Mexico, but skip Canada. But within a minute of conversation, you’ll discover that the Canadian dollar has weakened 8 percent, making Canadian exports cheaper in other markets.

Virginia’s Mike Luhmkuhler is also on defense, protecting the auto parts supplier cluster in the far southwest, the wedge splitting Kentucky and Tennessee. They’re fine, but did you know that even the deepest draft ships can use the Norfolk harbor 24/7? Only East Coast harbor where tides aren’t a factor, you know.

Georgia’s Dee Ford knows every detail of the construction schedule on Porsche’s new testing track. And Catoosa County’s just minutes down I-75 from that VW plant in Chatanooga, Tenn., you know.

Dejan Velickov and Viktor Mizo are back from Macedonia, with more wins, construction starts and plant openings since last year. Macedonia’s list of auto parts plant wins, which was zero just seven years ago, now counts 13,850 new jobs. In a poor country of 2 million north of Greece, that has helped cut unemployment to 27 percent from 38 percent. My favorite factoids: auto parts are now a quarter of national exports, and Macedonia is running a trade surplus with Germany.

Economic development pros try to keep it light, but their role couldn’t be more serious.

Auto jobs are good jobs. They tend to come in big chunks. They build local economies. They’re worth fighting for.

You can reach Jesse Snyder at jsnyder@crain.com.

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