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US job loss is Costa Rica's gain

After closing shop in Indiana, a Firestone plant comes to rural Costa Rica.

TURRIALBA, Costa Rica — For generations, coffee and sugar cane have kept many of the working people employed in this charming village plopped amid lush green mountains and the smoke-spewing Turrialba volcano 33 miles east of San Jose.

Now a new Firestone air springs plant has opened up, which locals hope will slow the flight of many of the area’s nearly 80,000 inhabitants seeking work elsewhere.

However, as the globalization game often plays out, what goes up in one town must come down in another.

This time the one going down is in Noblesville, Ind. In June 2008, managers at the 63-year-old Firestone plant outside Indianapolis announced they were shutting down — another casualty of the ailing auto industry.

The Indiana plant employed more than 200 people, but this year phased out production and cut jobs in three separate waves, according to Tim Cottrell, president of United Steelworkers of America Local 138 in Noblesville.

Firestone has been transporting the machinery over to other product plants in Williamsburg, Ky., and Dyersburg, Tenn., as well as to the Turrialba plant — which was inaugurated in April and is set to employ about 130 people, said plant manager Alvaro Murillo.

This could become a trend.

The computer chip giant Intel, which already manufactures at least 20 percent of Costa Rica’s exports, could be expanding this year to absorb production from plants that are being shuttered in the U.S. and Asia, according to business weekly El Financiero.

And these are not the only multinationals to set up shop in Costa Rica.

Over the past decade, stable politics and a highly qualified but low-paid labor force have helped turn Costa Rica into a prime location for foreign companies. Businesses including Hewlett Packard, PricewaterhouseCoopers and a host of major medical suppliers and outsourced call center operations have opened offices here — more than two dozen new ones a year, according to the Costa Rican Investment board (CINDE).

These businesses, along with revenue from tourism and real estate, are part of what makes Costa Rica a leader in Latin America in terms of per capita foreign direct investment (FDI) — considered an important bloodline for developing nations. Last year Costa Rica’s FDI topped $2 billion.