Japanese factories help out a battered industrial region

Indiana's thrust onto the international scene began in earnest during the economic ``crunch'' of the early 1980s, says Mark Akers, the state's director of industrial development. ``We were going along just fine, with no real problems and then with the gasoline shortage in 1979 we began to be in serious trouble,'' Mr. Akers recalls.

International Harvester (now called Navistar) closed its huge truck plant in Fort Wayne, putting thousands of workers on the street.

That was when the US steel industry in northern Indiana was hardest hit, too, and the state was trying desperately to put together a workable financial incentive program to attract industry - foreign and domestic.

``Fortunately it did come together at the right time,'' Akers says. ``By '83 and '84 we had all the kinks out of the programs, then the Japanese came at just the right time and suddenly we were on fire with new companies.''

That is not to say that Indiana or the Midwest are out of the economic woods yet. Morton Marcus, a business professor at Indiana University, says the region ``continues to sink in relative terms'' and still has not fully recovered from the last recession.

Indiana, for example, if it had at least kept pace with the national average in recent years, would have produced $20 billion more in goods and services than it has, professor Marcus says.

Under the leadership of Gov. Robert Orr and Lt. Gov. John Mutz, the state has committed to a full-time office based in Tokyo - one of 33 states with such offices in Japan. Deals initiated by the office have put some new and bright feathers in Indiana's cap.

Prime among them is the new Subaru-Isuzu plant in Lafayette. The unique joint effort (by two competitors) will include a $500 million investment in an assembly plant to employ 1,700 local workers and be completed in 1989.

Purdue University and community officials have already begun to work together to prepare for the massive transition effort when some 250 Japanese workers and 50 Japanese families arrive in Lafayette two years from now.

State officials say the big auto factory has acted as a bell cow, leading other Japanese industry to Indiana.

On the heels of the Subaru-Isuzu announcement, Nippon Steel announced a $400 million joint venture to build a steel mill with Inland Steel in South Bend. That plant will provide 200 jobs.

The state is currently home for 13 wholly owned Japanese companies and 10 Japanese joint ventures with American companies.

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