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Anderson, Ind., set on beating back high joblessness

By Lucia MouatStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 6, 1981

Anderson, Indiana

Everyone in this automobile parts-producing city knows what Anderson's biggest problem is. They remember only too well the national attention that came their way last year, when unemployment edged over 21 percent and set a record for the nation. Although now a more modest 11 or 12 percent, the rate is still the highest in Indiana, and virtually everyone here feels the pinch in some way.

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But as you travel the streets of this pleasant community, where American flags often stand as tall in front yards as the trees and spring lilacs are just starting to come into bloom, you won't find a lot of hand-wringing. There is a strong Midwestern tradition of self-sufficiency here that civic leaders, in their united effort to bring more jobs to Anderson, appear determined to revive.

"I think we can do it ourselves and we've got to," says Mayor Thomas McMahan (R), who was a retailer until his election last year and, since then, has been given high marks for his leadership qualities and grasp of the problem from most corners of the community, including labor and management.

"The major thrust, if possible, should come from the private sector," the mayor says. "All these federal programs have been fine. And if there's a grant I can get, I'll go after it. But I think they're overextended to the point where some people have become addicted to them. We've all been heading down the primprose path, and it has to stop somewhere."

He recalls that some years ago when a group of 14 local churches was trying to build an apartment complex for elderly residents with the help of federal funds, the Washington money suddenly became unavailable. Rather than abandon the project, the churches expanded their ranks to 20, found a trust fund to tap, got a loan from five local banks to match the trust contribution, and gathered the rest in pledges from their members.

As the mayor puts it: "We prayed, and it worked."

Like most cities facing economic problems these days, Anderson is in hot pursuit of economic development wherever it can be found. Indeed, it is such a priority in this city of 65,000 just northeast of Indianapolis that Anderson has not one, but at least a half dozen economic development agencies in full operation. Some focus on clearing land and approving projects for industrial revenue bonds while others zero in on recruiting. But all share the goal of beefing up business and jobs for the city.

One key community decision made in the course of that work (and as a result of studies by the city's federally assisted Automobile Community Adjustment Program) was to look for the primary answers to the unemployment problem within the city's own boundaries.Existing small businesses are to be encouraged and nurtured.

"We'd all like to bring in a company from the outside that would employ 5,000 workers, but there aren't that many going around," explains William B. McCarel, program manager of the Anderson Downtown Development corporation. "Last year about 400 manufacturers relocated, and thousands of communities were out there waving flags, offering free meals and land; it's highly competitive. . . . Actually, 95 percent of the development in most communities comes from within as a local manager or retailer decides to expand his base."

"Our main objective now is to keep what we have and expand it," confirms Jim Priest, director of city planning. Efforts directed outside the city will continue but will be targeted to specific growth industries, such as energy. "There's no reason for us to look for additional auto business," he says.