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Bloomberg News
Employment in the vehicles and parts manufacturing sector has grown by 25 percent from July 2009.

Belvidere rebound something Obama can savor

– Chrysler’s factory in Belvidere, Ill., is bustling, shipping about 300 Dodge Darts a day. A mile east on U.S. Route 20, a new restaurant has added an assembly line of its own: one that makes steak sandwiches.

Business is looking up at Fiesta Market, a grocery that had struggled during the recession, said owner Mike Bolis. In May, he added an adjoining restaurant, Fiesta Tortillas, and he has hired 15 more people to make and sell fast-food items such as Mike’s Famous Steak Sandwich, a seven-ounce rib-eye served on a bun with lettuce, tomatoes and grilled onions.

“Hopefully, the people from Chrysler will come visit us more often,” Bolis said in a telephone interview. “I do see more people from the plant coming in. I do have my regulars.” The restaurant also makes daily deliveries to the factory.

Chrysler, under the control of Italy’s Fiat, has surged back to health since its 2009 bankruptcy and government bailout, and it’s bringing Belvidere along for the ride. The factory completes hiring for a third crew this month, which will bring it to 4,500 workers cranking out vehicles 120 hours a week. It employed as few as 200 people three years ago.

Chrysler’s investment will bring total employment by the automaker and its suppliers in the region to 6,000, according to the area’s economic development group.

President Obama touts his administration’s rescue of the industry and factory towns such as Belvidere as a crowning achievement of his first term. He has used it to differentiate himself from Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who opposed government financing of the restructuring and criticized it as “crony capitalism” to help union allies.

“As much as people may have disdain for some of these bailouts in theory, the reality was the situation required extraordinary measures,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist of Mesirow Financial in Chicago.

Belvidere and other communities tied to the auto industry are bucking a national trend of slowing job growth. Employment in the motor vehicles and parts manufacturing sector has increased by 25 percent, or 155,400 jobs, from the industry’s lowest point in July 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Weakness in the broader U.S. labor market is depriving Obama of progress on voters’ biggest concern four months before the election.

Obama, speaking July 6 at a campaign stop after employers added fewer jobs than economists estimated, called the hiring “a step in the right direction.” Romney called the report “another kick in the gut.”