5-year anniversary of GM plant closure - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

City officials, former workers reflect on 5-years since GM plant closure

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JANESVILLE (WKOW) -- In 2008, the Janesville community was devastated by the loss of the General Motors plant, but five years later officials and former workers say they're on the right track.

When the plant stopped production on December 23, 2008, 1,200 people lost their jobs. The city's biggest business for 80 years was gone. 3,000 auto-related jobs were lost throughout that year.

Those numbers include former GM workers like Keith and Karen Trembula. The couple, who met at the plant decades ago, was laid off in 2008. Combined, the two worked at the plant for nearly 50 years.
 
The Trembulas say they were worried about moving out of town to another GM plant so they chose to stay.
 
"You don't know where you could end up, you could end up in Kansas City, could have ended up in Texas or Ohio, there was no guarantee," says Karen.
 
The couple both went back to school to retrain for new jobs shortly after the plant closed. Karen now works at a pharmaceutical company and is earning her bachelor's degree. Keith is working in the agriculture industry. Both say they're happy with their decision.
 
"Everybody that went through it basically had to look at what situation they were in at that time and make a decision. Once you made the decision you kinda gotta stand by it," says Keith.

Former city manager Jay Winzenz, who now acts as director of administrative services, says it was a time of uncertainty for many of the unemployed and for Janesville.

The city worked with the state and local business leaders to put together an incentive package to bring GM back to Janesville, but efforts failed and the company re-opened a different idle plant.

"We knew we had to move on," Winzenz tells 27 News. "If that didn't happen, as a community we needed to continue to move forward and we needed to pull together."
 
The city began planning for the future, how to recover the economy in the middle of a nationwide recession. 
 
Winzenz says overall, the impact wasn't as dramatic as many people had expected because of efforts to diversify the economy in other industries in town over the past 20 years. It was a big loss to see the city's largest single taxpayer and utility user stop running, but the city had become less dependent on those payments. Some rate and tax increases did have to be absorbed by the community.
 
Economic leaders like John Beckord, director of Forward Janesville, say those companies that were not reliant on GM operations have survived and prospered in the past five years.
 
Beckord tells 27 News the average weekly pay is about the same now as when GM closed, without an adjustment for inflation. There are several thousand fewer manufacturing jobs in Rock County but there has been growth in other industries.
 
"Clearly the healthcare sector has been an anchor for this community for a long time and it's experienced a lot of growth since then," Beckord says. "We have a family of companies that call Janesville home, there's some real strong players here and many of them have expanded and grown and diversified."
 
Beckord says unemployment spiked to about 13 percent shortly after the plant closed, but it's slowly gone back down. This year, it's hit around seven to eight percent.
 
Right now, the Janesville plant is still being maintained by GM. As part of the collective bargaining contract with the local United Auto Workers union, it will remain under GM ownership until 2015. In the meantime, union leaders are lobbying to bring production back to Janesville.
 
City officials say they have received no indication as to whether GM is considering that as an option for the site.
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