ELLSWORTH, Maine — The sales crew at Morrison Chevrolet turned on the flat-screen television in the auto dealer’s showroom at 9 a.m. Friday and hoped for the best.
They got it, when President Bush announced that he had authorized $17.4 billion in emergency loans to Chrysler and General Motors so that the ailing companies can remain solvent until March 31.
“There was definitely excitement here in the showroom. No question,” said Tom Wheeler, the sales manager at the dealership, which specializes in vehicles made by General Motors. “There was a big sigh — a big sigh of relief.”
He said the announcement’s effect on the showroom was, quite literally, immediate.
“I was appraising my first trade-in. My customer said, ‘Oh good. Now we can make this happen,’” Wheeler said. “Obviously, we’re very happy and pleased that this has happened. … I think it was good news and we have had a tremendous day today. We’ve been extremely busy.”
While Maine has no direct auto assembly jobs, industry experts say that if two of Detroit’s Big Three auto makers filed for bankruptcy, it would have severe detrimental effects on the state’s economy.
Maine has 6,384 auto-related jobs, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Those jobs include 265 positions at Brewer auto part suppliers ZF Lemforder and Brewer Automotive Components, and jobs at dozens of dealerships.
University of Maine history professor Howard Segal specializes in the history of technology. He said he thinks the loans are “critical.”
“Yesterday I read about possible bankruptcy procedures, and this is better,” he said. “I think it’s also good that the money is coming from the already-approved $700 billion bailout. It’s not additional money.”
Segal said he hopes the crisis might serve as a “long-overdue wakeup call” to the American auto industry to produce cars that are more competitive in the marketplace.
“It might also be the first step in the revival of the American auto industry,” he said.
Concessions and jobs were on the mind of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who said in a statement that the loans would require “fundamental restructuring” by the auto industry.
Collins said she is “hopeful” that Bush’s plan will assist the automakers and save jobs.
“To do less would just delay the day of reckoning while putting billions of taxpayer dollars at risk,” she said.
Wheeler, who sold three new cars and one used car Friday morning, said he hopes the announcement’s effects linger.
“People are relaxing a little bit and commenting that they guess General Motors [is] not going anywhere,” he said. “We had one guy in last night with a Korean War veteran’s hat on. He made the comment that he was going to be buying an American-made automobile. We need to be supporting stuff here. That’s good to hear.”