Mayor says city would help lure Cruiser expansion; Automaker assured of ‘appropriate assistance’

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said he is willing to provide “any appropriate assistance” to make Toledo the home of the PT Cruiser, DaimlerChrysler’s hot new retro vehicle.

“I don’t want DaimlerChrysler to feel bashful about asking the state of Ohio and the city of Toledo for assistance if they are considering us for a new line” of vehicles, the mayor said yesterday.

Sources familiar with the automaker’s planning process last week said that Toledo’s Jeep plants are among those being considered as an assembly site for the Cruiser, which has been in unexpectedly high demand since its introduction.

The Jeep Parkway plant is considered Toledo’s most likely site for a new line, but Mr. Finkbeiner said the Cruiser could be built in an expansion of the new Stickney Avenue plant.

Friday, a DaimlerChrysler spokesman refused to say whether Toledo is being considered. “We are looking at the market and demand for the vehicle and evaluating whether we need to add more production,” spokesman Trevor Hale said. “No decision has been made.”

The PT Cruiser, once a futuristic concept car, has been a surprise success since its introduction. Its neo-1930s styling has proven popular with consumers. More than 32,000 of the vehicles have been sold through July.

Mr. Finkbeiner said he sent a letter to Robert Eaton, then DaimlerChrysler’s co-chairman, almost a year ago, asking him to consider putting a third line of vehicles in Toledo.

Most Cherokees and Wranglers made worldwide are already assembled in Toledo. The Cherokee is nearing the end of its life cycle and is expected to be replaced with a new vehicle next year.

Earlier this summer, the mayor followed up with a letter to James Holden, the president of DaimlerChrysler’s American arm. “I wanted to remind him that we had stepped up and executed on time and that Toledo would be a perfect fit for either the PT Cruiser or the Varsity,” a four-wheel drive “urban adventure vehicle” introduced as a concept car at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Not long after, Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12, informed the mayor that the old Jeep Parkway plant was being studied for possible reuse for the PT Cruiser.

“Every other day, Bruce and I were talking about the possibility,” the mayor said.

Last week, at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Mr. Finkbeiner met four times with Frank Fountain, DaimlerChrysler’s senior vice president for government affairs. There, Mr. Finkbeiner said he made sure the automaker understood that Toledo is ready to back a deal to bring the new vehicle here.

“We are prepared to do that which is appropriate and prudent to bring this line to Toledo, Ohio,” the mayor said.

If the PT Cruiser does come to Toledo, it would not be the first time Mr. Finkbeiner has offered significant incentives to the automaker.

In 1997, when the then Chrysler Corp. was considering moving its Jeep operations outside Toledo, city and state leaders assembled a $278 million financial incentive package designed to keep Jeep. It included $98 million in state tax credits, $87 million in local property tax breaks, and more than $75 million in out-of-pocket costs to the city and state.

In exchange, the automaker agreed to make a $1.2 billion investment in their local manufacturing facilities, expanding the Stickney plant and modernizing the Jeep Parkway factory, parts of which date to World War I.

Mr. Finkbeiner was criticized by some, including presidential candidate Ralph Nader, for giving DaimlerChrysler too many incentives.

The city’s commitment should help its cause with the PT Cruiser, Mr. Finkbeiner said. “They’ve seen that we can get things done,” he said. “We’re prepared to be as assertive as we were before.”

The mayor said he does not know how seriously other potential sites are being considered, or how big an investment it would take from DaimlerChrysler to bring the new line here. He said Mr. Baumhauer estimated that the PT Cruiser could bring with it 600 to 800 new jobs.