Fort Wayne tries to shift city economy from Harvester to high tech

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

What's a city to do in these tough economic times when a major employer announces it will close its plant there?

The collective response of Fort Wayne residents, who got that word from International Harvester (IH) in late September, is determination.

''We're going to find a way to embrace this situation and come out ahead,'' insists Fort Wayne mayor Winfield C. Moses Jr. ''We're going to make this into an opportunity.''

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Some might dismiss such optimism as mere mayoral pep talk. The closing of the IH plant, scheduled for next July, will cost the city at least 2,200 jobs. But Mayor Moses and other civic leaders, who once predicted a local unemployment rate of 22 percent if IH pulled out, now insist there is a solid basis for their positive outlook.

For instance, this blue-collar city has shown a proven ability to pull together during a crisis. Fort Wayne hit the national headlines last spring as some 50,000 local volunteers worked as a sandbag brigade to ward off major flooding. Then this summer, when IH first announced it would shut one of its three North American truck assembly plants, about 100,000 residents signed pleas to the company to keep Fort Wayne's plant operating. Government and busines leaders backed the plea by raising a $31.5 million aid package of loans and guarantees.

''We raised $8 million from five banks in four days,'' marvels Richard Clark, the newly recruited director of the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce.

Some in town suspected from the start that theirs was a losing battle, given the age of the Fort Wayne facility among other things. When IH finally announced its decision to leave, few other than some company employees were surprised. But no one here is about to write off the city's effort as wasted.

Mayor Moses says that almost as soon as he had heard the news he sent a message to the City Council, asking it to lock in place the city's $20 million share of the aid package for future economic development.

''We have the resources to come out of this battle stronger than ever,'' he says. ''The real advantage of the Harvester situation is that we've identified tens of millions of dollars that we can now use to buy jobs.''

Business inquiries of every sort from all across the country began to pour into Fort Wayne after IH announced its decision.

''We haven't had anything coming in with a magnitude of 2,000 jobs in one fell swoop,'' admits city economic development director Karl Bandemer. ''But there's a lot of legitimate interest out there from major firms wanting to expand and relocate and we're working with them.''

Some in Fort Wayne suggest that the loss of the IH plant may be the city's gain. After all, there were those high union wages the company introduced in the area. And the memory of the bitter and long 1979 strike against IH lingers - a strike that some feel did not help the city's image. Others here point to IH shaky financial status and the role the firm's decision has played in prodding Fort Wayne to come up with a coordinated, aggressive approach to economic development.

''The probability of Harvester's ultimate bankruptcy appears extremely high and what this community doesn't need is another set of false expectations,'' says Thomas Guthrie, an associate professor of business and economics at Indiana-Purdue University here. ''And to the extent that the Harvester dilemma forced us to come up with some innovative ways to finance economic development, that in the long run may be more beneficial to the city.''

In years past Fort Wayne, though prosperous, was divided and less than energetic in going after any new business.

''We just weren't concerned about it - the city was tied in with the automotive industry which had always been able to weather fluctations, ''observes Mr. Bandemer.

But steady announcements of company layoffs here since 1979, capped by IH's September announcement, signaled the need for a more united, aggressive approach. The chamber of commerce was reorganized with a new tilt toward economic development. Currently, it's gearing up for a major fund-raising effort next month to promote the city as a business and manufacturing site. The city's potential strengths have been pinpointed in a massive Fantus Company study, and a hefty stack of proposals from firms ready to help the city develop a five-year marketing plan sits on Mr. Clark's desk.

Like other cites, Fort Wayne is casting its eye on high technology. Mayor Moses, who says the city already has 24 such companies (including Magnavox, now Fort Wayne's major employer), wants to see Fort Wayne become a major computer software center.

Still, some Fort Wayne residents are skeptical that the city's recruiting efforts can have much impact until the national economy improves.

''Most companies are just holding tight,'' says Rex Bear, president of United Automobile Workers (UAW) Local 57. ''I think Fort Wayne is doing all it can, but I don't see any boom situation coming along.''

Sitting in an office across from the red brick IH plant, near a wall poster that reads ''Unemployment isn't working,'' Mr. Bear says that about 5,000 of the facility's production and maintenance workers in his local have been laid off. The truck plant shutdown will reduce the number of jobholders in his union to about 700.

Many UAW members still working and retirees contribute to a new relief fund administered by a local charitable agency for those in dire need, he says. Local labor groups played an active role in the city's response to IH and are involved in the new push to bring more business to the city.

Whatever its success, Fort Wayne can no longer be accused of lack of trying.

''This community just jumps up and fight back,'' insists the chamber's Clark, who was recruited from a similar job he held in Rockford, Ill.

''This is a different community than it was a year ago,'' agrees Bandemer. ''There's a real can-do, let's-get-on-with-it spirit.''

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