WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney spoke Thursday at a shuttered National Gypsum plant in Lorain, Ohio, in an address meant to highlight the ineptness of President Barack Obama's economic policies.
Obama visited the spot as a presidential candidate in February 2008, and gave a speech pledging to turn places like Lorain into centers of economic revitalization. But while that alone may have provided the Romney campaign with enough material to take a swing, the actual details of the plant closure complicate the politics.
For starters, the plant shut its doors during the Bush years. While the Obama administration may have been in a position to help it reopen since then, experts stress that its failure has more to do with macroeconomic trends than with presidential decisions.
Gypsum is known, per industry parlance, as drywall. It's a less expensive means of finishing the construction of walls and ceilings. As the construction market continues to grapple with the aftermath of the real estate bust, demand for gypsum has plummeted.
Nancy Spurlock, the director of corporate communications for the National Gypsum Company, which owns the Lorain plant, told The Huffington Post that it is at "the lowest point that we have been in decades." During the housing boom in 2005, the demand for gypsum drywall nationally was 38 billion square feet. Last year, it was 17 billion.
The reason demand has nosedived is because people are no longer building buildings, Spurlock said. The National Gypsum Company has three main types of business: sales through home improvement stores like Lowe's, the commercial real estate market and the residential construction market. The last is the largest component and it also happens to be the hardest hit.
"The housing industry is definitely a factor ... It has been the big pull-down on our market," said Spurlock. "We are very cautiously optimistic. We are seeing some improvement in housing starts and housing permits," she said, before adding that National Gypsum wouldn't reopen plants "until the market changes."
The National Gypsum Company still operates 21 plants. But four of them, including the one in Lorain, are classified as "idle." Tellingly, this is the second time in three months that Romney has stopped by one of the plants. While campaigning ahead of the Florida GOP primary this past January, he visited the struggling National Gypsum warehouse in Tampa, once more to hammer the president for not having turned the market around.
National Gypsum plants are alluring campaign backdrops for the Romney campaign, even if the candidate himself has argued that the foreclosure crisis should have been allowed to run its course. "Had the president’s economic plans worked, it would be open right now," Romney said on Thursday of the Lorain plant.
But if Obama has failed National Gypsum -- and his administration has notably come up short in its attempts to heal the housing market -- he has helped other industries, including some in Lorain. The town's mayor, Chase Ritenauer, told The Huffington Post Thursday that the local economy was seeing "quite a bit of positive movement," owed largely to the re-emergence of the auto industry.
Republic Steel recently invested $85 million in a plant in the city, which Ritenauer predicts will create 450 new jobs and help retain 100 others. The company Camaco, which manufactures seat frames for automobile seats, is also investing in the area.
"Lorain is a proud steel-making town. We had a Ford plant at one point, but we still have the ancillary supply side for the industry," said Ritenauer, a Democrat. "I think the overall point to make is that the policies President Obama talked about yesterday, investing in education, manufacturing jobs, we are seeing a benefit because of that."
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