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Prime Minister Stephen Harper greets workers at the Ford Essex engine plant on Wednesday. Harper announced that up to 757 auto sector jobs will be created or sustained in Windsor, Ont. ((Dave Chidley/Canadian Press))

With an election call possibly just days away, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Industry Minister Jim Prentice announced on Wednesday a financial aid package to help reopen Ford's mothballed Essex engine plant in Windsor, Ont.

Prentice said the announcement will initially create or sustain up to 542 jobs, or potentially 757.

About 900 people were put out of work last fall after the shutdown of the Ford plant, which produced V-6 engines.

In an afternoon announcement at the plant, Prentice said the government will contribute up to $80 million over five years. He said the money is the first to come out of the government's $250-million, five-year automotive innovation fund that was part of the last federal budget.

The funding will help convert the Essex facility to a flexible plant capable of quickly adapting to handle assembly of a variety of engines.

'Today's announcement goes a long way to putting people back to work.'—Eddie Francis, mayor of Windsor, Ont.

It will also support a new research centre in the southwestern Ontario city that will perform development on gasoline, hybrid and alternative fuel powertrains.

Funding is 'good news': mayor

Prentice said the government is prepared to invest in any future expansion of the Essex plant that Ford undertakes if market conditions warrant. An expansion is contingent on Ford's approval of more production by the end of 2010.

Harper dismissed suggestions the funding announcement is simply part of a pre-election effort to win votes.

The Ontario government has already put $17 million into a reopening of the factory.

Windsor Mayor Eddie Francis welcomed the money.

"Today's announcement goes a long way to putting people back to work," said Francis, whose city has been battered during the downturn in Ontario's manufacturing sector.

The Canadian Auto Workers union said the money was long overdue.

"This is good news for the Essex engine plant and for the city of Windsor, but the delay in securing this important federal funding has been frustrating and stressful for everyone involved," said Mike Vince, president of CAW Local 200.

With files from the Canadian Press