Fort Wayne puts pedal to the metal. When major truck company closed, city rallied to create jobs
Fort Wayne, Ind. — The role of manufacturing in the nation's economy has been shrinking. But city and business leaders here in Fort Wayne are convinced that modern variations of smokestack industries, once the backbone of the Midwest, will help their city not only survive but thrive. ``We've specifically set our sights on manufacturing,'' says Fort Wayne Mayor Winfield Moses Jr.
``What we're good at is making things. It's in our genes. That's what the training of our people . . . and our tax base has been. That's what the suppliers [from plastics to fenders] are here to support, and that's where our best cost effectiveness lies.''
Some residents here thought it might be the beginning of the end for this midsized American city of 173,000 when International Harvester decided to close its truck assembly plant here in 1982.
The company had been the city's largest employer, once providing paychecks to 7,500. And the community had made an all-out, dollar-rich offer to try to keep Harvester here. Its lack of success was a blow.
But as Mayor Moses tells it, the experience ``galvanized'' Fort Wayne. ``We made a community decision that we were going to find new ways to create jobs.''
In all, new and expanding businesses have brought 5,900 additional jobs to Fort Wayne over the last three years. Local unemployment, once as high as 13 percent, has now slipped below the national average, to 6.7 percent.
City and business leaders began by drafting a plan of action, funding it well, and talking with the 400 largest companies about growth plans and problems.
Simultaneously, the city began to run ads in targeted national publications spotlighting such assets as Fort Wayne's effective sandbagging effort by thousands of volunteers when 1982 floods hit the city hard. And one local team concentrated on applying for -- and winning -- such outside honors as the US Conference of Mayors' ``Most Livable City'' award and an ``All-American City Award'' presented to the mayor by President Reagan. ``I was much plumper then,'' observes Mayor Moses as he glances with a smi le at the commemorative photo on his office wall.
In the course of Fort Wayne's aggressive campaign, leaders designed more than 60 different economic packages to serve as inducements.
``It was not our design just to have a list of 10 things people could choose from,'' says the mayor. ``Our goal was to identify what would trigger their decision. Did they need a particular road or some special type of training? What companies appreciate most is special attention.''
Fort Wayne's largest coup over the last three years was the General Motors Corporation decision last fall to build a $500 million truck assembly plant here employing some 3,000 workers. The company had earlier considered but rejected the city as a research facility site. Fort Wayne had offered everything from new roads and sewer lines to a tax abatement. And, when GM leaders were searching again, Mayor Moses says, ``We had a headstart -- we were in their file folders.''
In some cases Fort Wayne has given what some communities might see as too much to get what it wants. When ITT, a firm that already produced some products here, was shopping for a place to manufacture the newest generation of Army radios, city leaders offered a package of job-training funds and a new building, to be leased to ITT for $1 a year for several years. ``We gave them an offer they couldn't refuse -- we essentially built the building for them,'' says the mayor.
Local companies, too, which in the past had been concerned about the city's viability, were persuaded to expand. General Electric, for instance, which had long had a manufacturing division here and had given out layoff notices, decided to bring in a high-tech aircraft instrument division. The result was a net gain for the city of 300 new jobs. One lure: a promise of $2.2 million in federal retraining funds.
And Mayor Moses remains outwardly confident that the best is yet to come. ``I honestly believe that Fort Wayne has a window of opportunity for the next three to five years that's unparalleled here since the 1920s.''
That kind of conviction and the record to date go a long way toward explaining why this Mayor remains so popular in a traditionally conservative city. Even a political scandal over the summer appears to have left him largely unscathed. Next: Keeping jobs in the Midwest One worker's life after Harvester
``I don't really like working more hours but my philosphy is, `Whatever it takes, do it.' ''
Jerry McCagg is into his second career -- by necessity rather than choice. In moving from one manufacturing job to another, he took a sharp wage cut -- from $12 to $5 an hour. But he says he's able to make up a lot of the difference and help the company get the job done by working overtime. He often puts in as much as 70 hours a week.
For 22 years this father of four worked for International Harvester (IH), long Fort Wayne's largest employer, doing a variety of jobs, from a driving a truck to packing shipments.
When he learned that Harvester's truck assembly plant was closing, he briefly considered the idea of a company transfer to another city. But he and his wife grew up in Fort Wayne. They particularly liked their suburb of New Haven and its school system.
So he took a test to discover his aptitudes and enrolled in a federally supported on-the-job training program. The course in packing and shipping was with an office-furniture manufacturer that moved into the old Harvester plant.
Mr. McCagg says he is not bitter about the loss of his longtime job. ``They didn't guarantee me a job for life -- I'm grateful for the 22 years.'' And he says he does not particularly miss his old union affiliation. ``Unions can help you or hurt you, and I don't miss it as long as they treat me fairly here,'' he says.
Fort Wayne Mayor Winfield Moses Jr. insists that kind of ability to adapt to new situations is now a ``must'' for all workers.
``The days when you could take a single job after high school at a nice factory and be there for 30 years are gone, lost, never to return,'' he says. The mayor insists that retraining -- even for those staying in the manufacturing field -- is ``absolutely essential.''