ROOTSTOWN TWP.: A once-closed auto-parts plant has been resurrected with the state’s help and is hiring dozens more workers.

“This plant is expanding fast. There’s a need for talent” said Ian Hessel, chief operations officer of the General Aluminum Manufacturing unit of Park-Ohio Holdings Corp. “We put $4.2 million into an addition and machines in the last year alone.”

The 2007 shutdown of the plant, along with the closing of a second Ravenna Aluminum plant in nearby Ravenna, hit Portage County hard.

About 400 jobs were wiped out. About the same time, at least two other plants in the county closed.

The state — eager to save manufacturing jobs — granted a $4 million low-interest loan to help Park-Ohio with the purchase at a time when auto sales were declining.

Cleveland conglomerate Park-Ohio, a publicly held company, bought the Ravenna Aluminum Inc. plant in 2008.

Located on state Route 44 outside Ravenna, the plant now employs about 160, many of whom previously worked for Ravenna Aluminum.

The plant is looking for more workers, thanks to winning a major contract with Chrysler to make parts for car suspension systems.

Needed at Rootstown are roughly 35 production floor workers, as well as employees to fill several salaried positions, including quality control managers and design engineers.

Hessel said finding workers, especially those to fill salaried jobs, has been difficult.

“It may be people that have the skills are wary of the automotive industry,” Hessel said. “But the bottom line, production volumes are picking up. And we are a very financially stable company.”

The company also makes water pumps and transmission-related components.

The new contract meant the plant had to expand, with a recently completed 32,000-square-foot addition that houses huge heat-treat furnaces, where extreme temperatures harden the parts. Each of the three main furnaces is about the size of a semi-trailer.

The upgrade saves General Aluminum the cost of shipping parts out to another company for heat-treating.

“This is a huge cost savings,” Hessel said. “This plant is going to be the most efficient foundry in North America.”

The addition also houses a facility where parts are sprayed with an oil-based dye — called Zyglo — and examined under a black light to detect cracks or imperfections.

Company officials say auto manufacturers require high levels of testing for the “safety critical parts” made in the plant.

The state helped finance the addition, too, granting a $1.5 million low-interest loan late last year, on top of the earlier $4 million loan.

Hessel estimates Park-Ohio’s total investment — the initial purchase of the building and equipment, along with the addition and new equipment — at $12.4 million.

There have been some bumps.

A big automaker halted production on a vehicle, resulting in the cancellation of a contract with General Aluminum in 2009.

Shortly after being bought, the nonunion facility lost a large contract with a domestic automaker in 2009.

“It goes with the territory,” Hessel said, noting the cyclical nature of the auto industry.

The company had hoped to have 200 employees in Rootstown by now.

“But this new contract [requiring the addition] is going to take us well beyond 200,” he said.

Longer term, he said, business should increase — requiring more workers — as automakers realize “the plant’s capabilities and efficiencies.”

Reason for optimism

Hessel said he and others in the auto supply business have some reason for optimism.

“If you look at automotive production, we had a solid year in 2011, and 2012 is expected to be up,” he said, noting that forecasters predict U.S. sales of automobiles and light trucks to reach 13.6 million or more.

That’s up from 11.6 million new cars and trucks sold in 2010, the second-worst year in about three decades, after 2009.

Plant General Manager Craig Schlauch said, “Our goal here at Rootstown basically is to have a one-stop shop for the automobile industry.

“Here we do everything, from making the sand cores [the molten aluminum is poured around the sand to make the part], to finish processes, to testing,” he said.

Brad Ehrhart, president of the nonprofit Portage County Development Corp., said county officials are impressed with Park-Ohio’s transformation of the plant.

“They’ve invested a whole lot of money back into the plant,” he said. “It’s all great stuff. We’re excited.”

Ehrhart praised Park-Ohio’s “good old entrepreneurship,” explaining the company saw a cost-effective way to build capacity.

He said buying the old plant “probably made more sense than building from scratch. And we have a plant reborn.”