Loss of Harley-Davidson plant not good for KC region

W e’re long past December, but somehow a line from a Merle Haggard song seems so apt. “It’s the coldest time of winter.” It’s been snowy and sub-zero at times this week, yet also, the recent Harley-Davidson announcement that it plans to close its motorcycle plant in Platte County is a chilling morale cruncher. “Got laid off down at the factory, and their timing’s not the greatest in the world,” Merle sang.

Harley-Davidson offered a gritty, classic Americana, old-fashioned manufacturing flair to Platte County. They built the factory out in old farm fields east of Interstate 29 and the Kansas City International Airport. It seemed when the plant opened in 1997 like the business boom economic development officials had long sought for the KCI corridor was taking off. No other project in the county during that decade had attracted such a high level of interest and support from Kansas City or Missouri legislative leaders from south of the Missouri River. Major tax breaks were put in play.

Now the motorcycle company’s rumble and roar seems less muscular, less invincible.

No time is a good time to lose a job or face a major move. But it hurts a little more in winter. I know what it feels like to be called in and handed papers when you thought you’d landed a family-supporting, career-until-retirement job. So my sympathies go out to those 600 or more Harley employees now facing an uncertain future.

Harley-Davidson said in a news release that the company’s manufacturing capacity exceeds the public’s demand for motorcycles. It’s an economic move. They are consolidating what’s done at the plant at 11401 N. Congress Drive in Kansas City into an existing plant in York, Pa. Layoffs are to start in the middle of this year, and the plant is to close in the third quarter of 2019.

The economic loss from this plant closing is not good for the whole Kansas City region. However, when you drive around Air World Center or other airport neighborhoods you find a lot of growth along the KCI corridor. A new office building is under construction near I-29, and it seems like a new large warehouse or industry building has cropped up every time I drive those side streets near the corridor. Affordable land, utilities, highways, a major airport, all promoted by business types hungry for development, that’s kept growth going in the corridor through all economic ups and downs. The airport didn’t create an overnight, massive economic boom envisioned in the 1970s. But it never quit drawing business steadily either. So Platte County’s economy does not live or die by one motorcycle plant.

But the Harley-Davidson factory closing is the most highly visible charisma loss for the county since TWA was fading and the airline’s once essential passenger jet overhaul base was facing closure. Heck, Harley-Davidson is a tourism draw, too. The factory has a gift shop and it’s offered a variety of factory tours. I’ve been introduced to people in social or work sessions where the conversation starts with “where you from,” and they tell me they’d toured the Harley plant. Harley’s website this week noted that the factory tours are not available Feb. 2-9 due to manufacturing requirements. One wonders if that is to cut onlookers off from shocked and saddened employees?

I drove through the factory parking lot on Monday, just curious. It was near sundown and perhaps a shift change as employees were coming and going. I recalled being there one summer day and seeing the special pavement apron out front where proud employees and visitors parked their motorcycles in a line. Harley’s are for many, pride on wheels.

Go online to read news analysis about the closing and you see finger pointing at Harley-Davidson management. Maybe so, that’s beyond me. But one factor noted is most baby boomers who once longed for a Harley already have one. The company announced last week that it’s planning to roll out an electric motorcycle within 18 months. That seems a big sacrilegious. But perhaps it is the future.

One thing that changed in Platte County when Harley-Davidson arrived two decades ago is that more motorcycles and riders showed up in warm weather on our two-lane blacktop back roads. The plant caused employees or motorcycle enthusiasts to discover the county is a good place for a country ride.

I’m not a motorcycle rider or a fan of the tough-cookie mentality that some riders adopt. But I am a fan of American manufacturing success stories. I hate to see this chapter for Harley-Davidson ending.

Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at editor@plattecountycitizen.com.