U. S. Official Suggests Clean-Air Industries Use Air Force Plant

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Antelope Valley aerospace workers, their jobs evaporating in the aftermath of the Cold War, may be able to build electric cars and trains at a Palmdale Air Force plant, a federal official suggested Tuesday.

The suggestion came from Assistant Secretary of Commerce L. Joyce Hampers after she toured Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale shortly after the official release of a study predicting that the decline in defense spending would have a severe impact on Los Angeles County's economy. The study suggested that parts of Plant 42 be converted to other uses.

Hampers said a proposal to use part of the Air Force facility for new "clean-air" industries that would employ laid-off aerospace workers could be supported in part by a $50-million fund that the Department of Defense has set aside for such conversions.

But Hampers and Palmdale officials said it was still unclear how commercial, non-defense-related tenants could set up shop at Plant 42.

Hampers, who spoke at a news conference at Palmdale City Hall, said the Air Force has not yet approved the concept, but she said a decision is expected within six months.

Hampers was joined by Palmdale officials and representatives of a consortium of companies that hope to establish an electric car manufacturing firm at Plant 42, an industrial complex where aerospace firms build or complete aircraft.

The tour of the facility came hours after a county task force released a report that said the decline in defense spending would cost the county as many as 420,000 jobs by 1995. Among the areas that will be hardest hit are Lancaster and Canoga Park, which will account for 10% of the laid-off aerospace workers, according to the report.

The report, authored by the Aerospace Task Force, identified Plant 42 as a likely site where private and public agencies could "create a clean transit center for rail car, bus and electric car assembly."

Plant 42, where the Northrop B-2 bomber is produced, is by far the largest employer in Lancaster and Palmdale, with about 8,800 civilian and military jobs. But the number of jobs there has decreased over the past year because of aerospace layoffs.

The federal government's decision to cut production of the B-2 from 75 bombers to 20 is expected to result in a layoff of 2,000 workers and leave a 1-million-square-foot building vacant, according to the report.

Lon E. Bell, president of Amerigon, a Monrovia aerospace firm that is coordinating an effort to build a high-tech electric vehicle with components from California manufacturers, said Plant 42's vacant buildings could be used for an electric car firm, bringing as many as 50,000 jobs to the state.

To get started, Bell said his company would need between $1.5 million and $2 million for seed money and a 50,000-square-foot building with five acres of land to test the electric cars.

Bell showed an electric car prototype, which he said can travel about 130 miles before requiring a recharge and can reach a top speed of about 55 m.p.h. He said a more advanced prototype with two gears will travel at up to 80 m.p.h.

But Bell said the biggest question remaining is whether the Air Force will give his company the go-ahead to use Plant 42 buildings.

Hampers said she will ask Department of Defense officials to consider the proposal. But she said she cannot guarantee anything. "I don't know whether it will help," she said.

Hampers said converting Plant 42 buildings for electric car or rail manufacturing would be cheaper than building new plants. She said the facility has access to a railroad spur and other vital infrastructures.

She said Lt. Col. Scott Allen, commander of the 5,700-acre installation, has been given permission by the Air Force to give commercial firms tours of Plant 42 buildings, which she said she interpreted to mean "he is lining up his ducks."

Bell had been working with Burbank officials to establish the electric car company in buildings left vacant by Lockheed Corp. He said that Amerigon officials have not given up on the idea of moving to Burbank and that they are also considering the buildings at Plant 42. He added that they will decide between them in the next two weeks.

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