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West Michigan sees surge in manufacturing

A worker demonstrates the installation of a battery pack for a Ford Focus on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Co.'s Michigan Assembly Plant Dec. 14, 2011.

Jeremy Hobson: We're here in Michigan to get a sense of The Real Economy ahead of next Tuesday's primary. And this morning, the talk is likely to be about last night's GOP debate on CNN, and what candidates said about the auto bailout.

Here's Rick Santorum attacking Mitt Romney.

Rick Santorum: He supported the folks on Wall Street, and bailed out Wall Street -- was all for it. And then when it came to the auto workers, and the folks in Detroit, he said no.

Of course, all four GOP candidates opposed the bailout. And imagine how that exchange played in Grand Rapids. That city's unemployment rate has fallen to 7 percent because of a rebound in manufacturing.

Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith has more.


Lindsey Smith: Thank goodness the auto industry is coming back. It's a huge business for hundreds of part suppliers based in west Michigan.

At a manufacturing plant in Muskegon it smells like a fresh coat of paint and a little bit like burnt rubber. About 600 people work here, making car door handles for ADAC Automotive. Peter Hungerford is ADAC's vice president.

Peter Hungerford: We produce millions of door handles a year. We have 20 injection-molding presses here. We do all sorts of plastic resin material, from nylon to poly-pro.

The plant was a lot quieter during the recession. Hungerford admits ADAC was in "survival mode" a couple of years ago. Demand for door handles and other plastic car parts went down by about half -- and so did ADAC's workforce.

Hungerford: You just don't have a choice in that period of time. One of the choices was to no longer exist and that wasn't an option for us. We chose to fight. And we did it.

ADAC is doing so well now that it'll build another plant in Muskegon. Manufacturers are thriving all over west Michigan. Many companies can't even find enough skilled workers to hire.

George Erickcek: Grand Rapids is definitely coming back.

That's economist George Erickcek presenting his annual forecast for west Michigan. For the past seven or eight years, Erickcek's economic forecasts have been, well, really gloomy. During that period, politicians were scrambling to attract any other industry that wasn't tied to the automotive sector. Now that autos are doing well, Erickcek can joke about it.

Erickcek: All that talk about diversification -- phew -- thankful we didn't go there.

And it doesn't hurt that so many companies here -- including ADAC Automotive -- are still family-owned. So the company's profits tend to get reinvested in the community.

From Grand Rapids, I'm Lindsey Smith for Marketplace.

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