Lear Corp. broke ground Wednesday on a new $30 million SUV seat manufacturing plant that will employ about 875 workers in Hammond.

The Tier 1 automotive supplier, which makes seats for the Ford Explorer at the nearby Chicago Assembly Plant in Hegewisch, will consolidate its Hammond and Portage operations in a state-of-the-art, 240,000-square-foot plant on a 30-acre parcel just south of the South Shore Line train station in East Chicago.

“We’re pleased to be able to combine our operations into a single modern facility, which will optimize our ability to deliver the highest quality Lear seats to Ford Motor Co.,” said Ray Scott, executive vice president of Lear Corp. and president of Lear's seating business.

“The new site keeps our operations close to Ford, which is essential. Lear’s ongoing relationship with Ford and the UAW in Hammond is deeply appreciated, and we are grateful for future opportunities. Crown Enterprises has also been a good partner in this process and has helped make this possible.”

Lear has operated in Hammond since 1994 and outgrew its 100,000-square-foot facility on 165th Street because of strong demand for the Explorer, so it moved about 300 workers 20 miles east to a business park in Portage in 2015.

Now the 575 workers in Hammond and the 300 workers in Portage will reunite under one roof in the new facility. They're all represented by United Auto Workers Local 2335.

"We wanted to stay in Hammond, but we know space in the city is hard to find,” Hammond Plant Manager Michael Segvich said. “As we were exploring options, we were very fortunate that this land was available for lease.”

Segvich said the new plant should be up and running by April 2019 in order to start producing for 2020 model-year vehicles.

“The current plant in Hammond is landlocked, so expanding that facility is physically impossible,” Segvich said. “We also don’t want to interfere with current production, so constructing a new building is our best option.”

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said it's the first major new factory being built in the city since Munster Steel constructed a new plant in Hammond in 2013. 

Other cities across the Chicago area in Indiana and Illinois vied for the facility, and McDermott said he feared Hammond would end up losing the plant. His worries were so strong he started thinking about how he would explain the loss of one of the city's largest employers to constituents. Hammond ended up retaining Lear with a $4 million tax break.

“Today is a very exciting day for Lear and the city of Hammond,” McDermott said. “I’m very proud that Lear chose Hammond for the location of its new facility, and that it will remain a vital part of our city. We are pleased to have established a good relationship with a company that has demonstrated it supports the communities where it does business. This project will provide opportunities for Hammond residents and an overall positive impact on our local economy.”

Property owner Crown Enterprises is leasing Lear the 30-acre site that's flanked by factories — one of the few undeveloped lots left in the landlocked 134-year-old city on Lake Michigan.

"This area of the country and Detroit are referred to as the Rust Belt," Crown Enterprises Chairman Matt Moroun said. "A lot of capital investment went in a long time ago, and has been wilting away over time. Well, this is the anti-Rust Belt. This is fresh, brand-new capital to serve the automotive industry. It's going to give this area of the country a competitive advantage."

Lear means a lot to Hammond, and its continued presence ensures economic opportunities for its residents, McDermott said.

"Lear's creating jobs," he said. "And they're creating well-paying union jobs that support middle-class families."

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.