Fremont Under the Spotlight - NBC Bay Area

Fremont Under the Spotlight



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    U.S. President Barack Obama heads inside to deliver a speech after meeting with construction workers building a new Solyndra solar panel factory May 26, 2010 in Fremont, California. President Obama toured Solyndra Inc., a growing solar power equipment facility that is adding jobs as they expand their operation.

    Many American cities are enduring ups and downs these days, but Fremont's ride is worthy of a theme park.  

    In April, this immigrant hub of 217,000 people faced despair when the New United Motor Manufacturing plant closed. Nummi, as it is called, made Toyotas, and nearly 5,000 auto jobs were lost. Collateral damage spread to scores of businesses.

    Then, last week, joy: Toyota announced it was teaming up with Tesla to open an electric car plant at the Nummi factory site, coming in 2012.

    Also last week, the city announced grim news of its own: all public employees, including police and firefighters, would have to take a six-day furlough in the coming fiscal year to help close a projected $11.4 million deficit. But then, on Wednesday, Fremont received a civic shot in the arm: President Barack Obama breezed into town to celebrate a solar plant being built with federal stimulus dollars, not to mention Fremont itself, as a new center for green technology.

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    "The future," Obama said, "is here."

    Fremonters certainly hope so. Even without the loss of Nummi, this Silicon Valley suburban mall mecca has suffered its share of recession woes: foreclosures, plummeting housing values, city layoffs, cuts to programs, half-empty business parks, empty retail plazas and burgeoning class sizes in its once-proud schools. But civic boosters say that if any city can reinvent itself, Fremont's the one.

    Fremont, after all, was the first Hollywood, the capital of film-making when films were new. Charlie Chaplin filmed several movies in the city, including "The Tramp." Then, the industry moved away, and Fremont moved on.

    In the mid-20th century, Fremont, incorporated in 1956 from five towns, welcomed General Motors, which became the city's largest employer, attracting thousands of new residents and creating a new middle class. GM teamed with Toyota in 1984 to open Nummi, which was the last auto plant on the West Coast before it closed.

    It may take time, Obama cautioned, for Fremont to climb out of its doldrums. Former auto workers, many who were with the company for over 20 years, would agree. Many say they will never make as much money as they did, and some former employees are already in danger of losing their houses or making plans to move from the area.  

    Nummi gave Fremont fair warning. When GM bowed out in 2009, after it went bankrupt, Toyota said it would follow. But employees, buoyed by many attempts by the United Auto Workers, the governor and other elected officials to keep the plant afloat, were still shocked when the final days came.

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    "We knew it was going to close, we were anticipating that something was going to happen, but it was still shocking," said Larry Valdez, who worked at the plant for eight years. Valdez, who has a 10-month-old son, was at the Nummi Reemployment Center, which is across the street from the former plant. The center has helped 1,900 former workers thus far with everything from applying for health benefits to mortgage loan modifications, not to mention jobs.

    Life is tough, Valdez said. His wife, a dental assistant, can't find full-time work. They can not afford a babysitter, he can't find a job, and unemployment pays $450 a week, less than half of his $1,200-a week salary as an autoworker.

    Fremont's boosters keep saying the Nummi blow is strictly temporary.

    "We may be riding the roller coaster of the economy," said Cindy Bonior, president of Fremont's Chamber of Commerce. "But we're positioning ourselves the best we can."

    The city is heavily courting new companies to its many corporate parks and still-to-be developed land, arguing that Fremont's location in one of the world's major hubs of innovation, and right off several major freeways, can not be topped.

    Fremont can also boast of being one of the most diverse cities in Silicon Valley. Home to the largest Afghan population in the United States, it is over 46 percent Asian, with a large community of South Asian professionals lured here by high-tech start-ups.

    But Fremont is also hoping to play in the major leagues, literally. In 2006, Fremont began a courtship with the Oakland Athletics. The team called it quits on the city last year and is now sweet on San Jose, but Fremont refuses to give up.

    In January, it announced a new pitch for the team, offering the A's a 36,000-seat ballpark on land owned by the Nummi plant and infrastructure improvements that include a pedestrian bridge to a new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station.

    At the time, city leaders had no idea the plant would be sold so quickly, but there's still plenty of room at the site for both purposes. The Tesla-Toyota electric car plant is expected to create 1,000 jobs when it opens in 2012. But on Thursday, Tesla announced that eventually it plans to use the plant to produce a large number of affordable electric car models, thus employing more workers.

    David Garcia, a 40-year-old former Nummi worker born and raised in Fremont, can hardly wait.

    He earned his pharmacy technician certificate last year, anticipating that he would need to find a new job this year. But, sitting at a computer screen at the Nummi Remployment Center, he looked at the pharmacy technicians jobs offered locally -- six, all of which he had already sent his application.

    "I could take a job until Tesla opens," said Garcia. He has not considered leaving Fremont. "I don't want to leave my house," he said. "And I know all the good restaurants here."