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North American Auto Show Puts Detroit in Spotlight

The North American International Auto Show is one of the biggest events for the automobile industry. The annual show gives vehicle manufacturers an opportunity to introduce new models and technology available to consumers in the coming years. The spotlight placed on Detroit during the Auto Show also underscores the economic difficulty in the United States, as the country and the auto industry struggle to emerge from one of the worst years in auto sales.

Inside Cobo Center, home to the annual Detroit Auto Show, it's an endless display of glitz and glamour as automobile executives give the world a first look at their latest offerings.

This year's show comes in the wake of one of the worst years in automobile sales, which led to a massive government loan to General Motors and Chrysler, to help those companies stay afloat.

Outside Cobo Center, the reality of that economic climate is visible in Detroit's urban decay. Known as the Motor City, Detroit's former glory has given way to crumbling buildings and vacant lots. Detroit now has an unemployment rate near 15 percent, the largest for a metropolitan area in the United States. "If you have large scale downsizing in the auto industries, and other industries, workers don't have money. People are behind in their mortgages. They're behind in their rents. They don't have disposable income to come downtown and go to a restaurant or go to a shop. So this is the main issue," he said.

Abayomi Azikiwe is a local community activist trying to stop home foreclosures around Detroit. On a tour of the city, he explains the reason for Detroit's decline. "The auto industry had employed hundreds of thousands of people here in the city of Detroit for decades, and beginning in the 1970's, those jobs are gone. They've been downsized and outsourced," he said.

Azikiwe says he doesn't believe the billions of dollars the U.S. government pumped into the auto industry in the last year has helped Detroit reverse the unemployment trend.

Jeff McQueen, who belongs to the TEA Party Political organization, is also critical of the government's new role as a primary shareholder in the U.S. Auto industry. "No amount of government stimulation is ever going get us back on our feet," he said.

But Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm disagrees, saying, "You better believe that this unemployment rate in Michigan would have been a heck of a lot worse if it weren't for the fact the Obama administration came in and provided a safety net."

General Motors employee Matt Slade agrees with Governor Granholm. He says his job is one of the tens of thousands saved by the government's assistance. "They kept thousands of people, especially in Michigan and the metro Detroit area working. It's not the perfect scenario, however it did save our industry," he said.

The issue now is transforming Michigan's economy, which has historically been dependent on the auto industry. "We have been the poster child for this global shift in manufacturing jobs, and this is why we are so focused in diversifying Michigan's economy," said Governor Granholm.

Granholm believes that with new technology, profiled at this year's Auto Show, Michigan can play an important role in helping the environment, while also creating jobs.

The state is showing signs of heading in that direction. In early January, General Motors started production of a lithium ion battery at a new plant in Brownstown Township, about 40 kilometeres from Detroit. It is the first such plant in the United States, and initially employs about 25 people.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.