Monday, April 7, 2008

America for Sale: 2 Outcomes When Foreigners Buy Factories

Four years ago, a low-slung factory on the fringes of town here was stagnating and shedding workers. Then Siemens, the German industrial giant, bought the plant and folded it into a global enterprise. Today, the factory is shipping wastewater treatment equipment to Asia and the Middle East and employing twice as many workers.

The Electrolux refrigerator factory in Greenville, Mich., was closed two years ago. The company sent production to Mexico.

“Globalization has been good for Holland,” said David J. Spyker, once the plant manager and now vice president of a Siemens unit with operations around the world.

About 60 miles to the northeast, such talk provokes contemptuous snickers. Two years have passed since a Swedish multinational shut down what had been the largest refrigerator factory in the country, a sprawling complex along the Flat River in Greenville.

The company, Electrolux, sent production to Mexico, eliminating 2,700 jobs from a town of 8,000 people.

“Everybody talks about Electrolux around here the way the rest of the country talks about Katrina,” said Becky Gebhart, manager of a nonprofit medical clinic that opened last November in Greenville, 30 miles northeast of Grand Rapids, that serves people with little or no health insurance.

As foreign buyers descend upon the United States, capturing widening swaths of the industrial landscape and putting millions of Americans to work for new owners, these two cities offer sharply competing narratives for a nation still uneasy about being on the selling end of the global economy.

And with the dollar losing much value in recent years, the pace is picking up again, as some of the country’s most valuable assets go on the block at bargain-basement prices.

For many communities, like Holland, Mich., the consequences include new jobs at decent pay, fresh capital to finance expansion and links to markets around the globe.

Yet many others, like Greenville, are suffering from being branded redundant by huge enterprises with factories around the world.

To travel Michigan today is to experience America’s often ambivalent relationship with the global economy..