Transcript: Into the Future of Lordstown, Ohio

The full episode transcript for Into the Future of Lordstown, Ohio.
Image: Graffiti
A sign with "Save the GM Plant"? is painted over with "RIP"? along a road near the now shuttered GM Lordstown plant on Monday, March, 9, 2020 in Lordstown, Ohio.Justin Merriman / for NBC News

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Erin Einhorn: We are right outside the Lordstown plant, and there is a, must be an old billboard. It's just a blank wooden sign, plywood. It looks faded and weathered. And somebody had written in black spray paint on the wood, "Save the GM plant." And then at some point later, somebody came and wrote in white spray paint on top of it just the letters "RIP."

Trymaine Lee: This is Lordstown, Ohio. For more than 50 years, it's shared a name with a General Motors assembly plant. For the last decade, that plant was home of the Chevy Cruze. NBC News national reporter Erin Einhorn traveled from Detroit to this part of Ohio with producer Claire Tighe.

Einhorn: The Lordstown assembly plant was once of the largest automobile plants within General Motors.

Lee: On March 6th, 2019, the last shift of 1,400 workers packed up their things and were forced to move on. Today, GM Lordstown is closed. Over the years, this region, which is known as the Mahoning Valley, has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, starting when the steel mills closed in the '70s and '80s. But the GM plant had been a constant in an area that has dealt with change over and over again.

Einhorn: And it's a region that over the last 50 years really built up around General Motors. Everybody there knew somebody who worked in the plant. Multiple generations of families were invested in that plant. And now it's gone. (MUSIC)

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America, a podcast about politics, about policy, and the power that both have in shaping the lives of the American people. Today, we're going into the Mahoning Valley with my colleague Erin Einhorn one year after the last Chevy Cruze rolled off the line. We'll find out what the plant's closure means for the families who worked there for decades and why some people in the region are feeling hopeful about the future.

Dan Crouse: I think, The Lion King, they called it "the circle of life." It's a circle of industrial life.

Lee: To understand this circle of industrial life, Erin talked to people across the region who have lived through the ups and downs. And there's this one guy who has watched this story play out for years and whose business is closely tied to the health of Lordstown.

Einhorn: As I was getting ready to go down to the Mahoning Valley and talk to people and I said, "Well, you know, where should I go? Where are the places I need to go?" And everybody said, "Oh, well, you gotta go to Ross'."

Claire Tighe: So, yeah, we're going to Ross' Eatery & Pub, which is a local watering hole that has long been kind of a hangout for people who worked at the facility.

Einhorn: We were there, you know, on a Thursday afternoon around lunch. And it really is one of those places that just seems to draw everybody. You know, a wooden bar and kind of the back of the room, you know, a lotta color and light. There's actually a lot of deer heads.

Archival Recording: Did you kill all these deer?

Yeah.

Every one of 'em?

Every one of 'em. And ate 'em.

Einhorn: And then we met Earl Ross. And Earl Ross is one of those guys who it's like he was just meant to own a bar.

Earl Ross: I am one of the founding owners, but I'm a sole proprietor now. My father, my sister, and myself started it in 1997.

Archival Recording: What's changed since 1997?

Earl Ross: Oh, what a roller coaster ride that has been. I had hair. That changed. There was almost 10,000 members working three shifts at General Motors. You know, at 7:00 a.m. you'd get the third-shifters gettin' off. They'd come over to eat. At 3:00 p.m. you'd get the afternoon people or day people gettin' off. And then at 11:00 p.m. you had second-shifters gettin' off. So three times a day you had 1,200 or 1,300, 1,400 people driving through the community.

Lee: All of these workers didn't lose their jobs overnight. The demise of the GM Lordstown plant was gradual. As Chevy Cruze sales slowed, GM cut one shift, then another. 3,000 workers were laid off between January 2017 and June 2018. President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to bring back auto jobs, held a rally in Youngstown in the summer of 2017, just 20 minutes outside of Lordstown. He told workers then that they shouldn't worry.

Donald Trump: Let me tell you folks in Ohio and in this area: Don't sell your house. (CHEERING) Don't sell your house. Do not sell it. We're gonna get those values up, we're gonna get those jobs coming back, and we're gonna fill up those factories or rip 'em down and build brand new ones. It's what's gonna happen.

Lee: But two years later, the plant shut down. So who to blame? At the time, there were a lot of explanations batted around. There was the impact of the Trump administration's tariffs, which increased the cost of producing vehicles. GM pointed to car sales. Folks no longer wanted fuel-efficient starter cars like the Chevy Cruze. They wanted trucks and SUVs.

And the company, they wanted to be nimble, to pivot to hybrid and electric vehicles and invest in self-driving cars. But there were serious consequences. One study estimated that the closure could cost the region around $8 billion in overall economic activity. That includes people like Earl Ross, who told Erin that he depended on those GM workers for consistent business at his pub.

Einhorn: He described it as just the rug being pulled out from under him. And suddenly his revenues are down 60% and he's gotta figure out a way to somehow make it work.

Ross: The punch in the gut was the going-away party after going-away party after going-away party.

Einhorn: You know, he talked about how since the Lordstown plant closed he's hosted at least 100 going-away parties in his bar.

Ross: It's been groups of 20, then groups of 15, then groups of 40 coming here for their last drink, their last celebration, their last dinner before they leave town. Everything was the exact same thing. "Can't believe it." You know, it's sad.

Einhorn: And then these families split up and these friends split up. These people who grew up together, riding bikes together in the Mahoning Valley, they got jobs together in the plant. They raised their children together with the wages they were getting from the plant. They are from this community. And then all of a sudden they're all having going-away parties and they're leaving.

Lee: You met a family that is still struggling with the loss of GM, the Money family. Tell me about your meeting with them.

Einhorn: We met the Money family, who live in Niles, Ohio, which is not far from Lordstown. Hi.

Holly Money: Hello there.

Einhorn: Hi. Are you Holly?

Money: I'm Holly.

Einhorn: Erin. Nice to meet you--

Tighe: Claire--

Money: Hi Claire.

Tighe: It's so nice to meet you.

Einhorn: And they live in a lovely kind of suburban community on a street that had a lot of single-family homes, two-car garages.

Archival Recording: Thank you for having us.

H. Money: Sure.

Einhorn: So there's Kevin Money, who works for GM, his wife Holly.

H. Money: I work for our local city, the City of Niles.

Einhorn: And three kids. Cole, who's 16.

Tighe: Hi. Are you Cole--

Cole Money: Hi. I am.

Tighe: I'm Claire. So nice to meet you--

Einhorn: And Brooke and Jules, who are 13-year-old twins.

Tighe: Jules with the glasses is Brooke without 'em? All right. You're identical?

Archival Recording: Yes.

Tighe: But one of you needs glasses and the other one doesn't?

Archival Recording: Yes. (LAUGHTER)

Einhorn: You know, it's nice a house. We sat in the kitchen, which was all decked out for St. Patrick's Day--

Tighe: St. Patrick's Day. Is that--

H. Money: Yes, every holiday I decorate.

Tighe: Oh, do you?

H. Money: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). (LAUGH)

Lee: And what was life like for them before the plant closed?

Einhorn: You know, they described it as this just wonderful family life of the five of them together. And Kevin Money was the coach of his kids' basketball team. They talked about how he loved to take the family out for treats. He'd just show up spontaneously. "Hey kids, let's go get a dessert."

H. Money: When the kids were little, I was able to be a stay-at-home mom with them. He worked, and I was able to be home with them until they went to preschool. And then I started working after they were full time in elementary school.

Archival Recording: So did you have a sense, you know, ten years ago or five years ago that this was comin'?

H. Money: No. No.

Archival Recording: So it felt like GM, that job was gonna be forever?

H. Money: We felt it was going to be, yes. I guess we were comfortable with him goin' to work. A lot of people from this area were loyal to General Motors.

Lee: What did they tell you about finding out about the plant closure?

Einhorn: So GM announced that it was closing the plant or un-allocating the Chevy Cruze from that plant in November of 2018. And right then, Kevin, he applied for a transfer. And he, you know, wanted to try to put himself as close to home as he could. And he gets this job in Toledo, two and a half, three hours away. And he gets the word, they said, right before Christmas.

H. Money: He got the notice on December 22nd. It was a Friday. He received it at work. And that was Christmas weekend.

Archival Recording: So he gets the notice at work. Does he call you?

H. Money: No. He waited to tell me that night. He just probably went in the room, and laid on the bed, and shed some tears. And then when I came home, he said, "We need to talk." And we cried and cried. My husband and I have a great relationship. He's my best friend. And as a family, we always did everything together.

We would sit and have diner, or we'd go out to dinner together. So just knowing that he wasn't gonna be here every night to go to bed or to have dinner together, that was traumatizing. And then we held it from the kids until the day after Christmas.

Archival Recording: And do you remember how you described it?

H. Money: That Dad has to leave, Dad has to move away. We're gonna try everything that we can to keep life as normal as possible for everybody.

Archival Recording: Tell me your memory of that day. Cole?

C. Money: I had a slight feeling something was going on, mainly because my dad's been down in his office at his desk a lot prior to that date. And the one day I saw him crying in there. And he had ended up talking to me, and he said he had put in for a transfer. I didn't know why. I had no clue or reasoning behind it. But I knew something was happening.

H. Money: It was like somebody had honestly died. The feeling felt like there was a death in the family.

Einhorn: And they're actually a lot luckier than most because he's able to come home every weekend and be with his family. But they had had this life that they loved. You know, this tight-knit family that did everything together.

Archival Recording: When your husband decided to transfer, I mean, was there any consideration of quitting GM? Or that wasn't something?

H. Money: We talked about all possibilities. But for him to leave GM with 25 years in and to walk away from a pension, hopefully it's gonna be there in five years, and then hopefully start over, do something else, but to be able to have that pension that he's worked so hard for since he was 19, 20 years old.

Archival Recording: And full retirement benefits.

H. Money: And full retirement benefits, yes.

Archival Recording: So he needs to do five more years?

H. Money: Yes.

Archival Recording: And then he can come home?

H. Money: Yes.

Einhorn: But the problem in this family is that, you know, the girls are 13. Five years is when they graduate from high school.

H. Money: (IN PROGRESS) --high school. (LAUGH) Two of 'em are graduating high school the same year that he can retire. So.

Einhorn: So for the rest of their childhood, their dad's not gonna be around.

Archival Recording: (IN PROGRESS) -- used to that.

H. Money: That's not what we had planned. You know, he worked locally. We live locally. I work locally. They go to our school. And we were supposed to always, the five of us were always supposed to be here. And because of the plant closing, he had to move away.

Lee: Clearly this change has been hard on the family emotionally. But how are they doing financially?

Einhorn: It's caused financial burden as well. They've got two households, right? So they've got their family household that they had all along in Niles. And now, Kevin is living in an apartment in Toledo. And so they're payin' his rent.

H. Money: Gas. Tolls are not cheap. (LAUGH) The apartment, utilities, food. Around $1,200 give or take.

Archival Recording: So you have $1,200 less every month?

H. Money: Every month, yes.

Archival Recording: What's that come out of?

H. Money: Our combined wages. I mean, you know, we don't have cable anymore. We don't have a home phone anymore. We watch our gas. You know, we don't go cruisin' around and we don't go shopping. Like, you know, trips to the mall are just for special things.

Archival Recording: So you used to be able to buy more things?

H. Money: Yeah, absolutely.

Archival Recording: Have you guys felt the pinch?

C. Money: Definitely.

Archival Recording: Yeah.

Einhorn: You know, they've had a struggle.

Lee: So clearly, you know, the adults in this situation are doing what adults do, right? Surviving so the family can stay afloat. But how has their dad's absence affected the kids?

Einhorn: I think the hardest part was just Kevin not being there.

Jules Money: All of our life, we saw our dad every day. Now, we see him once a week. How life has changed.

Einhorn: Actually, the way I initially found out about this family is I was put in touch with them by a local elected official who had gotten a copy of an essay that one of the twins, Jules, had written.

J. Money: We will never forget how we felt as he pulled out of our driveway. He knew he was making a sacrifice for us, but it didn't make saying goodbye any easier. Daily life without my dad is very difficult and frustrating. There are days when I forget he's not home and that he's not going to be home.

I get so excited for him to come home because we miss him. Sometimes I have breakdowns when I'm thinking about him. Even (VOICE BREAKS) though I try to stay strong, sometimes I just can't help it. Believe it or not, only seeing him two days a week can sometimes make it worse because it makes me realize how much I miss him.

Lee: We'll be right back. (MUSIC)

Lee: General Motors says close to 1,400 people took transfers from Lordstown to other GM plants across the Midwest and South, in places like Michigan, Tennessee, or Kentucky. Of that group, many left their families behind, creating split households like the Moneys. But there's another side of the story here in Lordstown, one that has some residents excited. There are promises of new jobs coming to the Mahoning Valley. I asked Erin about the folks around here who see change as a good thing.

Archival Recording: Hi Dan.

Einhorn: I mean, I think Dan Crouse is an example of that.

Archival Recording: And you are how old?

Crouse: (LAUGH) 62.

Archival Recording: Are you sure?

Crouse: No.

Archival Recording: Okay.

Einhorn: He's a commercial real estate broker. You know, he's a guy who really sees the possibility in this region. He loaded us up in his, well, it was a 1999 Chevy Tahoe.

Crouse: You guys wanted to see changes. When you look at this place, this was an absolute disaster in 2010. It was 10% occupied, 15% occupied. Today, it's 95% occupied. It's an old industrial park.

Einhorn: He's just kind of bullish on where things could go. He talked about how this is a region in transition. That's clear. We heard that from a lot of people. The plant is gone. There's nothing you can do about that. But there's some positive things happening. He drove us by Lordstown Motors, which is a small electric vehicle startup that bought the Lordstown assembly plant from GM last year for $20 million.

Crouse: So a year ago, if you were driving on this road, that's the picture you would see at the end.

Einhorn: There used to be a large mural there advertising the Chevy Cruze that you can see from the Ohio Turnpike. And he was really excited to show us that now it says, "Ride with Lordstown," which is the banner for the new Lordstown Motors electric vehicle company.

And Lordstown Motors has this grand vision for building electric vehicles in that plant. They say they hope to be producing as many electric vehicles someday soon as GM was producing several years ago when the plant was at full capacity. There's also a new battery cell plant.

Crouse: So this is the plant.

Einhorn: A joint venture between GM and LG Chem.

Crouse: Right now, that's the battery plant right there.

Einhorn: And, you know, there's this talk about, "Could this region transform and become the voltage valley?"

Crouse: If we cater to Lordstown Motors and the battery plant, that should bring us the ancillary businesses that go with it.

Einhorn: And there's other things, too. So there's a distribution center for the TJX HomeGoods company, which is TJ Maxx, and Marshall's, and some other companies.

Crouse: 1.2 million square feet under roof.

Einhorn: This massive, massive distribution center that they've been building.

Crouse: This is a place where it comes in from overseas or wherever it comes in. It gets brought to a place like this. It gets broken down and sent out to the stores.

Einhorn: And that'll create some jobs. And, you know, he's hopeful.

Lee: So give us the back story here. Why are new businesses moving into the area now when the ashes of the plant are still kinda warm?

Einhorn: So there's a lot of companies that are looking to expand, looking to build new businesses. And Mahoning Valley, you know, is strategically located. It's right off two major interstates, I-80 and I-76. So the Ohio Turnpike, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You know, there's railways. There's central power. And the local community is really welcoming of these businesses. You know, tax breaks are available, things like that.

Lee: Are these good jobs? Are they comparable to what GM was paying?

Einhorn: I mean, they're good jobs. But I don't think they're going to make anything close to comparable to what GM was paying. I mean, you gotta keep in mind that union jobs with a company like General Motors is the sort of, like, middle class ideal that in some ways built this country.

But you don't see it as often now as you used to. You know, they were these great jobs. They pay, you know, $30 an hour. You know, the new jobs, the leadership behind some of these new companies aren't putting out a wage scale. They're saying, "Oh, the wages are gonna be competitive."

So at Lordstown Motors, which is the electrical vehicle startup, he said the wages are gonna be competitive for the auto industry, with the implication being the wages'll be similar to a General Motors job. The battery cell plant, which is a joint venture between GM and LG, and they're saying that those wages will be comparable to other battery cell producers.

So those wages are gonna be, you know, somewhat lower. So not $30 an hour. Maybe $16, or $17, or $18 an hour or less. You know, the TJX facility, the distribution center, it'll pay above minimum wage. But nobody's expecting to make $90,000 working in that facility.

Lee: So all these things happening in the valley, does Dan connect any of this change back to President Trump?

Einhorn: He does. He said some of it. You know, he's a conservative. He's a libertarian. You know, he believes in new development. He believes in, you know, the free market. You know, he's a supporter of the president and says the president's policies are encouraging some of this development.

Crouse: He claimed to be and has been a disrupter. And we need a lotta crap disrupted.

Lee: How does Dan feel about all this change?

Einhorn: He was really just convinced that this isn't the end.

Crouse: Look, transitions like this have gone on forever. Think about it. We went from horses and buggies to cars. We went from coal to natural gas inside of houses. All of these things change the way people live. And there's natural progressions and evolutions. So.

Lee: So the changes that are coming you think will be ultimately beneficial?

Crouse: I think that the changes that are coming, we have to make them beneficial. If you take that microcosm, this General Motors, okay, we're in that transition. It's an unfortunate blip, but I believe that if you came here in 14 months, there'll be as many people working at Lordstown Motors and LG Chem as there was in the GM plant. And so that's the natural transition. I mean, I think The Lion King, they called it "the circle of life." It's a circle of industrial life.

Lee: It sounds like there's a lotta promise, but does Earl Ross of Ross' Eatery & Pub, does he see it that way?

Einhorn: What's really interesting about Ross' Eatery & Pub is that everything that's happening in the community kind of filters its way in.

Ross: I'm seeing just a new wave of people, tech people and people poppin' up that, you know, otherwise are from all over the country.

Einhorn: He says his business has picked up a bit.

Ross: So I'm just now finally gettin' back into the green. So that's good, with the addition of Lordstown Motors and, you know, just getting through a long, cold winter, you know?

Einhorn: So where revenues were down 60% a year ago, he says they ticked back up. Maybe he's recovered about 20% of that. So he's not back where he was. But he's seeing things moving in the right direction. (MUSIC)

Lee: On Tuesday, Ohio will vote. Lordstown is in Trumbull County, a swing county in a swing state. They voted for Barack Obama in 2012, then Donald Trump in 2016. But voters also reelected House Democrat Tim Ryan in 2016 and 2018 and went for Democratic senator Sherrod Brown that same year. Dan Crouse says he sometimes votes for Democrats, but this November he plans to support the president. Earl Ross said he didn't want to talk politics. Erin told me that's pretty common around this part of the state.

Einhorn: You know, when we were talking to people about politics, everybody was really cautious. One of the things that really struck me, we were in this local diner talking to people. We'd go up to a table, and there'd be four people at the table. And two were ardent Trump supporters, and the other two were Democrats. And I was really struck by it because, you know, we talk so much about how divided this country is. And somehow, they're able to make it work. And maybe there's a lesson in there for the rest of us.

H. Money: (IN PROGRESS) -- people think he's gonna save the world--

Lee: And the Moneys, the family that's divided after the dad took a transfer from one plant to another, Holly Money says they won't be supporting the president.

H. Money: He is the president of our United States. So you have to respect him that way. But we are just, (LAUGH) he could have done a lot more for the middle class rather than the upper class. He came here, said, "Don't sell your house. General Motors is gonna be here, gonna be building cars." And then a few months later, it was closing. People were losing their jobs. Families had to move. So any promises that he's made for our area, he did not keep.

Lee: Last week, they still hadn't decided which Democratic candidate they would vote for this Tuesday. I asked Erin whether any of this change in Lordstown feels like a good thing for their family.

Einhorn: I mean, there's some hope on the horizon potentially for the community. And, you know, they're watching that. But it doesn't really apply to them because there might be new jobs, but Kevin Money, you know, he's looking toward retiring with full benefits from GM. And there's only one way to retire with full benefits from GM. And that's work five more years at GM. So from their perspective, it's a little bit irrelevant, you know, what's going on, because their fate has already been determined, you know? His job is gone. And the only way he can continue to have that job is to commute to Toledo.

J. Money: I miss my dad most when I'm getting ready to settle down for the night. All the hear and sadness wash over me like a wave. And all I could think about is how he his alone in a different city, all alone without us to protect him. And we're here without him to protect us.

Without seeing my father every day, it feels like a piece of our lives are missing. Who knows when the piece will come back in place? Maybe GM will reopen with a new vehicle to make. Maybe Congressman Tim Ryan will become president and get something back here for us.

Maybe we will eventually have to move like some others had to because the stress of broken families needed to be avoided. There is no answer yet. All I can say is the Money family is strong and we live and hope that we all live a strong family.

Einhorn: You know, the economy changes. And we don't always talk about kind of how that trickles down and affects the kids. But, you know, here is this one family with this one story about, you know, how a decision, you know, made by a corporation based on business projections kinda trickles down and affects the way a little girl is gonna play basketball when she goes out for her team on the first day that her dad's not there rooting for her in the stands.

Lee: Erin Einhorn, national reporter for NBC News. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.