09/15/2011 08:04 EDT | Updated 11/15/2011 05:12 EST

Ford plant closure mourned by St. Thomas, Ontario

Ford plant worker Dennis McGee thought he had "died and gone to heaven" when he collected his first paycheque of $325 in 1978, but now McGee and hundreds of other employees are bidding farewell to the employer that has been the economic backbone of the southwestern Ontario community of St. Thomas for 44 years.

The last sedan rolls off the assembly line Thursday, throwing McGee and the last of the about 1,100 employees out of work at the factory that had 3,600 workers a decade ago. The closure was announced in 2009, as the North American auto industry was taking a battering, but hope prevailed that it would be avoided as auto bailout packages in the midst of the recent recession helped revive North American automakers.

McGee, for one, still has dependents, and is grappling with the forced retirement as the final sedan rolls out of the 2.6-million-square-foot factory where the Lincoln Town Car, Crown Victoria other vehicles have been built.

"My first paycheque I had rent money — $195 plus I had about $130 left over —and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," he says. "I still got kids in university and I gotta figure out how I'm gonna pay for that.

"It's tough, it's emotional, there's a sense of numbness," McGee adds. "I met a lot of good people over the years and to see it shutting down, breaks my heart, it really does."

Heather Jackson Chapman, mayor of the community of about 35,000, says the plant isn't the only business casualty in the community, which is in for some tough times.

More than 3,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the past three years, and St. Thomas now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

"We're never going to see the big plants again that employ 2,000 at a time with the high-paying jobs we became accustomed to — it's just the new reality."

To help the Ford workers, the union and the automaker have worked out compensation packages that allow for early retirements and a limited number of transfers to other Ford factories.

The about 800 remaining employees who need to find new work get a severance package as well as three years of job-search and retraining assistance through a centre set up by the Canadian Auto Workers union. A Ford spokesman says the company remains committed to Ontario, having recently invested in its engine plant in Windsor and its assembly plant in Oakville.