CLAYCOMO — A state panel said Wednesday that Missouri must do more to make sure it doesn't get left behind as the automotive industry moves toward more energy-efficient vehicles and the development of alternative energy sources, such as biofuels or power cells.
The 27-page report from the Missouri Automotive Jobs Task Force makes a number of recommendations, including expanding economic incentives for automakers looking to switch over to building newer vehicles or diversifying their production, providing training on the new technology for Missouri autoworkers and encouraging local governments and consumers to buy more of the vehicles to improve the overall market.
The group said taking those steps could both create new jobs in Missouri and retain highly skilled workers who might otherwise leave for other states as their jobs disappear.
"These experts have concluded that while our automotive industry has faced stiff challenges in recent years we have the people and facilities for significant growth in the years to come, especially as America's automakers ramp up production of 'green' vehicles," Gov. Jay Nixon said as he unveiled the task force's report at the Ford Motor Co.'s Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo.
The Claycomo plant builds gas-electric hybrid versions of the Escape and Mercury Mariner models. Last month, Ford said it was adding a third shift to boost production of the popular Escape.
Overall, the industry generates $4 billion for the state's economy and employs about 25,000 people, ranking Missouri eighth in the nation for automotive employment.
That work force has shrunk 35 percent since 2004, Nixon said, including the closing over the past two years of Chrysler LLC's two plants in suburban St. Louis. But the governor said he and the task force members believe the industry can still rebound and grow in the state.
Nixon appointed the 21-member automotive task force immediately after he was inaugurated in January.
Among the task force's suggestions:
- Provide matching-dollar incentives that would attract federal funding for alternative fuel research by universities, private researchers or companies.
- Conduct a study to determine what resources would be needed along state highways to accommodate next-generation vehicles, such as power stations for plug-in vehicles.
- Work with banks to provide special loan programs for consumers to buy or lease next-generation vehicles made in Missouri and provide incentives similar to the federal "cash for clunkers" program to encourage trade-ins of older vehicles.
- Create economic incentive programs to offset the large cost of retooling an existing plant with new technology. While the state has similar programs for attracting large manufacturers, this program would encourage existing manufacturers to remain. Also, the state could help foster the development of "supplier parks," where automotive suppliers are located together near a manufacturing plant.
- Help find new uses of vacant automotive plants and facilities.
Don Nissanka, president of Lee's Summit-based electric battery maker Kokam America and a task force member, said incentives for Missouri companies are key to the state remaining competitive.
"The future of the automotive industry is going to be either a hybrid system or a full electric system, and unless we start making the changes to get to that level I would say that there are going to be some challenges for anybody to survive," said Nissanka, whose company in April picked Midland, Mich., over Lee's Summit for a new $650 million plant because of incentives there.
He added that Kokam is seeking federal grants for a similar plant in Lee's Summit.