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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What I learned from a dying mill town

I grew up in a dying mill town. I know what a slow collapse looks like. Day to day, it looks pretty much like ordinary life. There are ups and downs. However, after 4 or 5 decades, the population of my home town is less than half of what it was.

When I was kid there were a couple big factories. One made shoes, the other made paper. The shoe place closed in the late 70s. There were ups and downs, layoffs, rehires, downsizings and all that. Then one day they starting sending mechanics and technicians down to Puerto Rico to train their replacements. Of course, no one told them that's what was happening. Management told them they were expanding, not relocating.

The paper mill took a couple more decades, but that's closed too. Only a small operation remains in a neighboring town. The mill changed companies and names. Processes were updated. Every change allowed the mill to run with less people. One time it closed. There were massive layoffs, but another company bought and reopened the plant -with less people. The last time it closed, the place was demolished for scrap. That made it clear to even the most optimistic that paper wasn't ever going to be made in town again.

Other businesses came and quite often went. None of them ever paid the good wages that the mills once did. None of them ever employed as many people either. There are still some good jobs around, but not nearly as many as there used to be. None of them require shoe or paper making skills.

The downtown shrank. Retail space is a fraction of what it once was. There are brave attempts and some of them even last. However, it does say something about a town in which one of the longest lasting businesses was once a head shop.

One time a world class Jazz musician opened up a Jazz cafe. My wife and I took full advantage of his horrible business sense and enjoyed the place the few years it was open. His decision to move to a dying mill town cost him most of his money and his marriage. Years later a really good Internet coffee shop opened. They soon moved to a neighboring "tourist" town. Not every business fails. A few have been open for many many years and know the local market. There's even a really good Chinese food restaurant that's thriving. People still have to eat.

There's a lot of economic ups and downs. In the long run, the highs are never as high and the lows are lower. City officials announce one economic plan after another. Some even appear successful, but the trend is down. Lots of happy talk about prosperity being just around the corner. It's one heck of a big corner.

My experience has colored my outlook. To me, the whole nation looks like my old dying mill town. Some parts are successful, but overall, it's sliding backwards. People who grew up in expanding communities may have different views. My view might be too bleak.

To me, this is what the country looks like -a dying mill town.

One bright note: many people find ways of getting by and even thriving. Just because the economy is depressed doesn't mean you have to be.


1 comment:

  1. I've been watching this city die my whole life. Reality is lost on our "leaders" here. That reality is that you've got to come to Corpus Christi on purpose. No interstate runs through, in fact, we're on a very long, very boring spur from San Antonio which is 2 hours away. They always yap about drawing tourists, yet they run off every tourist attraction that comes along (Sea World, Schlitterbahn (water park), and many others). Meanwhile the city "leaders" want to run the place like it's Houston or San Antonio, when in fact it's just a sleepy fishing town with a seaport and a couple refineries. I kinda like it that way myself. It would be a nice place if they focused their efforts on maintaining rather than trying to attract an ever smaller pool of corporations to relocate to "the end of the line"....