Worries spun through his head. He had to support six kids, including two in college. He was nearing retirement after 28 years at GM, and his pension was in jeopardy. But as he walked toward the plant floor, his immediate concern was what to say to workers.

"You can't let the people know you're devastated and scared for your life," he said. "I had to tell my people to stay positive and good things would happen."

As lawyers for GM and its creditors fought in court over scraps of the company, Orion's second chance emerged.

In exchange for its $50 billion bailout, the government got a 60 percent stake in the company and GM agreed to build a tiny car known as the Sonic at one of the U.S. plants it was closing. Small-car production had long been relegated to other countries where wages weren't as high. But GM couldn't take government money and build a small car overseas.

For folks in Orion like Dunn and Pat Sweeney, the local union president, the mission was clear: Get the Sonic.

First, they met with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and other state officials, who promised GM a $779 million, 20-year tax credit.

Gibb spent all spring organizing petition drives and thinking of ways to cut the plant's costs. So when an army of GM lawyers and tax experts showed up at his office, he was ready with a generous package of tax incentives. The township also promised a new $4.5 million water-storage tower and pledged to buy water at off-peak hours so GM could get lower rates.

The tax abatement cost the township and its schools about $780,000 per year, but Gibb said it was worth it to save the plant's roughly 3,600 jobs. If the plant closed, he estimated that half of the area's commercial properties would be vacant within two years. Plus, the township was competing with Janesville and Spring Hill, Tenn., which had a newer factory than Orion.

If you liked this article you might like

What's Behind the Surge in Energy Stocks

Hillary Clinton Says Prosecuting Individuals is Key to Wall Street Reform