Toledo Mayor, Chrysler CEO meet over Wrangler Future
By Kevin Milliken, La Prensa Correspondent
Toledo’s mayor met face-to-face with the CEO of Fiat Chrysler at the automaker’s corporate headquarters in suburban Detroit—out of concern the Jeep Wrangler could one day be manufactured somewhere other than Northwest Ohio.
Sergio Marchionne, the head of Fiat Chrysler, recently stated that the Wrangler may be made of aluminum to meet federal gas mileage standards when the iconic brand undergoes a design overhaul for the 2018 model year. If that happens, Marchionne warned the Jeep Wrangler would have to be manufactured somewhere else—because the retooling required at the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex would be cost-prohibitive.
Those comments at an auto show in Europe quickly found their way back to Northwest Ohio, angering United Auto Workers officials and concerning local and state elected leaders. That quickly led to a conference call on Sunday, Oct. 5, 2014 between Marchionne, Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins, and Ohio Governor John Kasich.
“We were there to fortify the position that Jeep is to Toledo as much as Toledo is to Jeep,” said Mayor Collins. “We wanted to maintain and make sure that message was sent loud and clear.”
The face-to-face meeting between the two men and their top brass was a follow-up to that phone conversation. Mayor Collins related details of the conversation during a press conference held at One Government Center upon his return from Detroit on Thursday, calling it “open and positive.” A press release termed the purpose of the meeting was “to gain clarity relative to Mr. Marchionne’s comments about the Wrangler facility.”
“Mr. Marchionne and his staff consider the men and women working at the Toledo assembly plant to be the finest team in automotive manufacturing—either internationally or domestically,” said Mayor Collins. “He made it very clear that he is committed to maintaining all the jobs currently associated with the Wrangler production.”
The mayor also stated the Fiat Chrysler CEO committed to bringing “another product or products” to the Toledo assembly complex if the Wrangler is eventually moved to an auto factory somewhere else. That promise could prove to be a huge relief for the dozens of Latinos who work at Toledo Jeep, as well as several auto parts suppliers in the area.
“Toledo and Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan will not suffer an economic setback as a result of future decisions to be made by Fiat Chrysler,” said the mayor.
The mayor stated he intends to have a follow-up meeting with Marchionne “within the next few weeks to continue this dialogue,” which he said “will embrace a full range of opportunities.”
Mayor Collins also plans to convene a strategy session of public officials, although he would not elaborate on what would be discussed among elected and economic development leaders from across the region.
The mayor was accompanied at the Fiat Chrysler meeting by members of his management team: Chief of Staff Bob Reinbolt, Senior Attorney Eileen Granata and Director of Development Matt Sapara, along with Gov. Kasich’s Chief of Staff Beth Hansen and JobsOhio President and Chief Investment Officer John Minor. It’s not known whether any state or local tax incentives were offered during the gathering, but follow-up discussions are expected.
“I think we have to work together. This is a corporate decision,” emphasized Mayor Collins. “I have no reason to doubt his sincerity.”
Toledo’s mayor stopped short of saying that it would take another public “Keep Jeep” campaign like the one waged 20 years ago to secure the current Toledo Jeep Assembly complex where the Wrangler and next-generation Cherokee are manufactured. But the Fiat Chrysler CEO has stated a lengthy shutdown to retool a plant wouldn’t work, like the one that resulted in a multi-million dollar investment when the Cherokee replaced the Jeep Liberty in recent years.
“What we need to do as a community is to reinforce the importance of what Jeep and Chrysler Corporation mean to this community,” said Mayor Collins. “I think we need to come on as a full-fledged partner.”
Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken, a former Jeep worker and retired UAW official, told Star 105 in a radio interview that there “needs to be more information” for public officials to formulate a plan to keep auto production locally. He refused to speculate when asked on what would be a better option—keeping the Wrangler in Toledo or manufacturing another model or models. He also stated Toledo has managed to keep Jeep production “two or three times” in the past when it looked like production would move somewhere else.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-9th District) fired off a joint letter to Marchionne, also calling on the company to keep Jeep Wrangler production in Toledo. According to the pair, more than 4,000 workers produce the Wrangler and Cherokee at what is one of the nation’s most productive assembly plants.
“Jeep production was the platform for building a strong middle class in northwestern Ohio,” said Ms. Kaptur in a statement. “We are fully committed to Jeep workers and a long future for Jeep in our community.”
“The Jeep Wrangler represents the reliability and tough grit that embody Toledo,” Brown said in the same statement. “The vehicle’s proud legacy is matched only by that of the workers at the Chrysler Assembly Plant.”
According to Senator Brown’s office, 70 percent of the Jeep Wrangler is US-made, with many parts of its parts manufactured in Ohio. The glass is made in Crestline, the steering column in Perrysburg, the seats in Northwood, the hard top in Carey, and cargo components in Holmesville.
“Time and time again, the Toledo community has risen to the occasion and helped Chrysler produce some of the best vehicles in the world. The community stands behind Chrysler, and is ready to help the company achieve new success with the next generation Wrangler,” their letter read in part.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles began trading on the New York Stock Exchange Monday as a public company.