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Saturday, May 26, 2012, 6:40 p.m.
 

LIMA, Ohio -- In the beginning, the Abrams tank drove Lima.

Designed in the 1970s to beat the Soviet Union, President Reagan's Cold War military buildup swelled the workforce at the Ohio factory making the Abrams to 3,800. Workers for defense contractor General Dynamics built more than 6,000 hulls (the last in 1992; they make new tanks by gutting those hulls and filling them with components). At their peak, they churned out 860 tanks a year.

Then the Soviets in the tank's sights disappeared. Would-be battlefields in Eastern Europe became emerging markets. The peace dividend arrived in Lima in the form of pink slips and the plant's workforce fell to 340.

The 393-acre factory complex "seemed like a ghost town," said Russ Clewley, 57, who began working on the tank in 1980, the year it entered service. "It just seemed like you'd have to walk half a day to go talk to somebody."

Eight-thousand defense-related jobs fled Lima in the 1990s, taking $300 million in economic activity from a city of 45,000.

Fewer than 39,000 live there today, according to the U.S. Census. Market Street shows the scars. Two-story arched windows, framed in ornate metalwork, allow daylight into the dusty interior of a bank on the town square. Enormous chandeliers hang from an intricately patterned ceiling. Heavy curtains lay piled behind the deserted row of tellers' windows. The bankers are gone and so is the money.

But a new war brought contracts. After years of stagnant hiring, General Dynamics brought in workers from 2003 to 2009 and the plant added production lines for the Stryker combat vehicle and others, said plant manager Keith Deters. The workforce grew to 1,250.

In 2010, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, announced a new era for defense spending. The deficit, he said, poses the greatest long-term challenge to national security. In January 2011, the Pentagon canceled the Marines' Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle program, after spending $3 billion to create it. The plant in Lima would have produced the vehicle, Mayor David Berger said.

A few weeks ago, plant production slowed from 1.1 tanks a day to 0.65 a day, said Clewley, president of the United Auto Workers Local 2075, which represents 600 plant workers.

General Dynamics laid off 160 this year and could furlough 200 more if production slows to 0.2 tanks a day, as scheduled for fall, Deters said. Workers feel the squeeze and frustration builds, Clewley said. He has seen this before.

"The part that I struggled with the most was seeing those guys go out the door not knowing if you were ever going to see them again."

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