By DAN GUZEWICH Staff writer

END OF THE LINE ¿ A mass transit bus sits on the assembly line at Daimler Buses in Whitestown. The decision by the parent company to abandon the North American transit bus market means bus production ends by March 31 as current orders are filled, with the loss of 497 jobs. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

WHITESTOWN — When the last Orion bus rolls off the assembly line in March, the factory shutdown will have cost nearly 500 people their livelihood.

Information submitted this week to the state Department of Labor indicates that as many as 497 people are losing their jobs as a result of the decision nearly three months ago by Daimler Buses to cease production of its Orion intracity transit buses. The phased-in shutdown means layoffs will occur between Sept. 14 and March 31, the company said in its state-required early warning notice of the closing.

The same report says there are 530 employees overall at the unionized facility at 165 Base Road in the business park that’s adjacent to the former county airport.

Orion stopped accepting orders for new vehicles April 25 when the parent company said it was abandoning the mass transit bus business in North America. At the time, Daimler said a smaller Whitestown operation would remain after new bus production ended, but provided no estimates on the final employment level.

The company said it is keeping operations related to parts and field service. In addition, Daimler looks to continue a retrofit program for current customers at Whitestown.

Monday’s filing with the state Labor Department brings the job picture into focus: a total of 497 employees out of 530 are due to be laid off. The final number of layoffs could turn out to be lower if some of the workers find employment and leave the company before they are laid off or if they retire. More than three-quarters of the workforce is represented by United Auto Workers Local 2243. Local 2243 agreed to a three-year agreement with Daimler in September 2010.

Last year, 463 Orion buses were sold, down from 734 in 2010. The company reportedly needed to sell about 750 buses a year to turn a profit.

Daimler blamed slumping demand for transit buses from regional and municipal governments and authorities, with no recovery seen in the next several years, for ending bus production. The federal government traditionally finances 80 per cent of the capital cost of new buses.

Additionally, Orion was hampered by uncompetitive costs.

All Orion buses undergo final assembly in Whitestown. Over the years the employment level has swung up and down depending on orders. Company ownership has changed several times since the operation opened in the business park in 1982 as Bus Industries of America with a handful of employees.

Orion buses were sold to transit systems mostly in the U.S. and Canada. The largest customer was the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City. Customers closer to home included Rome’s former VIP Transportation system and the old Utica Transit Authority.

Orion began operations in 1975 in Canada as provincially-owned Ontario Bus and Truck Inc., selling mostly to transit systems in Canada. It later opened the Whitestown facility, part of an attempt to crack the American market.

The plant in Canada put floors, carpets, windows and body panels on frames. Those semi-finished buses were then delivered by truck to Whitestown., where engines, seats and other parts were installed, which allowed the company to meet Buy American rules.

The fate of the Orion buildings not needed for the scaled-back operation is up in the air.

"The plans for the buildings are still being determined," said Silke Walters, Daimler spokesperson. The company owns a complex of at least three buildings along base road. Additionally, it leases most of a nearby former airport hangar from the county.

The plant in Canada will be shuttered completely when production ends.