On August, 21, 2008 General Motors’ CEO Rick Wagoner stood on a makeshift stage in front of a packed audience of Lordstown autoworkers, state and local politicians, and civic leaders from the Mahoning Valley to announce that his troubled global company would invest $350 million to retool the plant for production of the new Cruze line. GM’s announcement represents more than just an infusion of corporate capital in a production line. It is a profound vote of confidence in the future of the Mahoning Valley.
Almost 31 years ago, on September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube’s Campbell Works was closed without notice, leaving thousands out of work and beginning to dismantle the country’s third largest steel producing center. For decades, the people of the Valley had boasted of “Thirty Mills in Thirty Miles.” By the mid-80s, that had became a bitter memory as mill after mill closed. Ultimately the demise of the steel industry left 50,000 people out of work and devastated the Youngstown area.
Over the next 25 years the city’s population shrunk in half. As laid-off workers left to pursue opportunities elsewhere, foreclosures, abandonment, and tax delinquency ripped through once proud neighborhoods. Along with manufacturing jobs, families lost their houses, their dignity, and their hope for the future. The Valley’s social service agencies were stretched to the breaking point. Local governments cut staff dramatically, shut off street lights, and deferred all but the most essential services. Downtown Youngstown became a stage set of the empty storefronts, roofless commercial buildings, and abandoned lots, used by reporters and politicians to illustrate the impact of deindustrialization in the Great Lakes. The once fierce sprit of the Valley, like the fires of its mills, was extinguished. For many, optimism was replaced by despair, anger, and resignation.
A generation was to pass before the devastation began to reverse. The past 5 years have been a time of profound change. New leadership has emerged in the Valley’s two major cities-Youngstown and Warren-and in the region’s Congressional and state legislative delegations. New IT companies, focused on “business to business” software applications, are developing at the Youngstown Business Incubator. YSU began construction of a new $34 million Williamson College of Business Administration, and the state chancellor of higher education announced plans to develop a community college in the Mahoning Valley.
Despite the steady progress of the past five years, the Valley’s future has remained uncertain as people await evidence that manufacturing-long the cornerstone of the region’s economy-will once again provide opportunity and prosperity.
GM’s investment marks one of the most significant private sector capital infusions in the Valley in recent decades. It is also a profoundly important acknowledgement by a global corporation that the Mahoning Valley is back in the game as a place to do business.
Standing shoulder to shoulder that afternoon with hundreds of UAW members and with cars moving on the production line all around us, we heard union reps talk with sober pride about the effort they and their fellow workers had made and the sacrifices they had accepted in the most recent contract negotiations to insure that Lordstown would remain competitive in the cutthroat world of global auto production. Their hardnosed realism was balanced by the enthusiasm with which they and the entire audience greeted the full-scale mockup of the new Cruze-a sleek, stylish global automobile that will go head-to-head with the competition from Honda and Toyota. What I witnessed was a team proud of wining without compromising fundamental values, of producing quality work at a competitive price, and of earning a fair wage and benefit package. It was clear that this investment in the Lordstown plant and in the Mahoning Valley economy was enormously important economically and spiritually both to the Lordstown workforce and to the wider community.
It was no small feat to get GM to add a third shift, to integrate the new workforce-drawn from places as far afield as Shreveport Louisiana-onto the line in record time and to compete for $350 million in scarce corporate capital even as GM closes other factories in the region. Many of the speakers-from labor and management-stressed with hard won pride the importance of this accomplishment and the fact that this success resulted from collaboration and cooperation within the workforce and between labor and management. Lordstown’s message might apply both to Northeast Ohio’s manufacturers and their employees: tough, fair, reality-based negotiations combined with a renewed competitive drive and a fierce dedication to producing a quality product can lead to success in the global marketplace.
While GM’s investment will yield tax revenues for state and local governments and create additional new jobs in the region, the most significant outcome is its effect on the heart and soul of the Valley. As Congressman Tim Ryan told Wagoner, GM had given the Valley something it hasn’t had for a long time: hope. He predicted that a decade hence people would see August 21, 2008 as “the day the Mahoning Valley turned the corner.”
The GM Lordstown story demonstrates that economic development is not just about making deals and cutting ribbons. It is about giving people back their hope and giving communities back their future.