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'It's devastating'. End of GM in Ohio town as Trump fails to bring back midwest jobs

Adam Gabbatt in Lordstown, Ohio
Photograph: Allison Farrand/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For years, the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, employed 8,000 workers in the Mahoning valley.

In a rust belt region that has become synonymous with industrial decline, following the closure of its once mighty steel mills in the 1970s, the presence of the Chevrolet factory in Lordstown, and its well-paid manufacturing jobs, was particularly important.

Related: 'A kick in the stomach': massive GM layoffs leave workers distraught – and angry

Then, late last year, GM abruptly shut the plant. The company had already scaled back workers at the Lordstown plant, and this closure saw 1,500 workers, the last of the once huge workforce, out of their jobs.

“I think it’s devastating,” said Mark Sweetwood, the managing editor of the Vindicator newspaper, which serves the Mahoning valley.

“I think it was the last holdout of our industrial age.”

The news was just the latest blow in a slow, painful decline in this area. The rust belt was a boom area at the start of the last century, but has suffered more than most from the outsourcing of jobs overseas. Stories of places like Lordstown abound in the midwest, and the angst and anger here is something Donald Trump was able to tap into in 2016 and that helped propel him into the White House.

I think it was the last holdout of our industrial age

Mark Sweetwoo

The closing of the Lordstown factory came after GM said it would cut 14,700 jobs across four plants in the midwest and Canada. That announcement, in November 2018, was in stark contrast to Trump’s election pledge to bring back auto jobs to the region.

Today the plant, which looms behind a “Welcome to Lordstown” sign at the entry to the village, stands as a testament to the hollowness of that promise. In mid-August it was possible to drive into the complex, where huge parking lots – once full of new cars, but now completely empty, with brown weeds growing from cracks in the concrete – stretch as far as the eye can see.

On one side of the factory was a huge sign declaring: “Lordstown, home of the Cruze”. The plant was clad in dull yellow corrugated metal panels, adding to a sense of gloom on a grey, drizzly day.

Lordstown is a small place, essentially a village with a gas station. Warren, five miles north, is more what one would traditionally think of as a town, with a main street, businesses and an impressive 19th-century county courthouse. Away from the pretty town center, however, some of the narrow roads are lined with abandoned homes, while buildings are in varying states of disrepair.

It’s a far cry from the golden years of the 20th century, when the Mahoning valley was colloquially known as Steel valley as the steel industry boomed.

A home with posters in support of President Trump is seen along Salt Springs Rd near the General Motors plant in Lordstown village. Photograph: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post/Getty Images

“You could walk up and get a job. All my family worked in the steel mills. Everybody worked in the steel mills. You could go to any of those places any day and get a job,” said Patricia Galgozy, who has lived in the area for over 80 years.

Galgozy is the executive director of the Turnbull Art Gallery, in downtown Warren. The Foo Fighters rock star Dave Grohl, who was born in the town, recently attended a show there, and large framed photographs of him adorn the walls. The gallery, a non-profit, was in good shape, but Galgozy has seen how the area has changed.

“I see that impact constantly,” Galgozy said. “People can’t find jobs, in my own family. You cannot find jobs around here many times. It does concern me. It makes me sad.”

Despite that, Galgozy says she is positive about the future.

“It doesn’t mean the quality of life doesn’t stay with us,” she said. “I see that we’re fighters. We step up and say what can we do.”

The Lordstown plant manufactured the Chevrolet Cruze, a cost-friendly compact car. It ceased production, with little warning, in March. Some workers were given the option to transfer to other GM plants, either by commuting or leaving the Mahoning valley entirely.

I see that we’re fighters. We step up and say what can we do

Patricia Galgozy

There is a chance that people could be employed at the factory again, with Workhorse, a small company which manufactures “high performance battery-electric vehicles”, linked with buying the Lordstown plant. But Workhorse is beset by its own problems. The company recorded sales of just $6,000 in the second quarter of this year and lost $36.9m.

The consequences of the GM closure are serious. Cleveland State University’s Center for Economic Development estimates that the plant shutting down will have a negative impact of $8bn in the region. It doesn’t help that other big employers have also recently left the area.

“We also lost Allegiance Airlines in 2018. So we lost our airport … and the hospital shut down in 2018 as well,” Sweetwood said.

For longtime residents, the end of the GM era is all too familiar. When the US steel industry collapsed in the late 1970s, the area was decimated. As mills closed in nearby Youngstown and elsewhere, people left the area. The population of Youngstown has halved since 1970, while Warren has lost almost a third of its residents.

“The impact is going to hurt everybody in the community, little by little,” said Al Tate, an 86-year-old who sells fruit and vegetables at the Warren farmer’s market.

Three of Tate’s brothers lost their jobs when the mills closed in the late 1970s. Two of them left to find work, and never returned.

“Others did the best they can, trying to make it,” Tate said. He said people who have lost their jobs at GM now face difficult choices.

“They’re hurt now and they’re going to hurt worse later after their [unemployment] benefits stop,” Tate said.

“If you ain’t got nothing coming in, you’ve got nothing to spend. If you’ve never had to live week-to-week, from month-to-month, it’s hard to understand.”