By SCOTT SMITH, Kokomo Tribune staff writer

scott.smith@kokomotribune.com

Workers at 23 Chrysler plants across the nation - including the company's four Kokomo plants - will return to work as scheduled Tuesday, company officials said Thursday.

"All four plants will return on the 20th," Chrysler spokesman David Elshoff said. "I won't commit to production schedules beyond [that statement], but all [Kokomo] employees report on the 20th."

The company's brief statement, issued late Thursday afternoon, made it clear future production decisions will be based on the market.

"The ongoing worldwide financial crisis continues to stifle the availability of consumer credit for American car buyers, prolonging the automotive industry downturn," the company statement read. "As a result of these external issues, Chrysler LLC will make additional adjustments to production schedules at its North American manufacturing operations."

Chrysler will continue furloughs for an additional week at three plants: Belvidere, Ill.; Sterling Heights, Mich.; and Toluca, Mexico.

"Things are going as previously announced, so there's no news in Kokomo," Elshoff said. "Everybody's returning as planned, after a four-week down period."

Workers at the Toledo North Assembly Plant and Supplier Park will return to work Jan. 26, and workers at the Windsor (Ontario, Canada) Assembly and Conner Avenue Assembly plants will return to work Feb. 2. The return dates for those workers had been previously announced.

Workers at the rest of Chrysler's plants are expected to return to work on Tuesday (Monday for Canada and Mexico employees).

The company did say, however, that "select workers at the company's powertrain, stamping and component plants will be contacted by their respective human resources group to confirm if they are to return to work on either Jan. 20 or Jan. 26."

Elshoff had no further information on the status of Kokomo's work force, other than confirming the return date.

"Chrysler makes product-by-product decisions based on current and anticipated market demands," the statement continued. "Company officials will continue to monitor economic indicators for signs of returning consumer credit and consumer confidence in making further operational decisions."

Bill Thompson, co-owner of Mike Anderson Chrysler Dodge Supercenter in Logansport, said sales at the dealership continue to be steady and said prospective buyers can expect numerous incentives to buy.

He said he will order additional trucks and minivans to replenish his lot and said the market for SUVs appears to be rebounding as consumers have seen more stability in gas prices.

"There's a lot of good news out there, and we'd like to see more of it, because a lot of it is attitude," Thompson said. "Business is not rocking and rolling, but it is steady, and the incentives are phenomenal."

Nationwide, Chrysler has been trying to give dealerships time to reduce inventory.

Analysts earlier this week said Chrysler dealers exited a dismal December with an average 140 days' worth of unsold autos.

Thursday, Elshoff said the extended furlough had reduced that excess to about 114 days' inventory. Industry analysts consider a 60-day inventory ideal.

And the Detroit Three automakers aren't the only companies hit by the economy and the credit crunch.

Thompson said the media has unfairly focused on the extended furloughs at Chrysler plants, while mostly ignoring the fact that many of the foreign automakers also recently idled their workers for 11 days.

And Thompson said he sees signs that the credit crunch has lifted.

"The financial troubles we faced in November and December have mostly gone away," he said.

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