Shock and anger.
Those are the first two emotions likely felt by residents of cities where General Motors plans to close plants. When GM announced last week up to 14,000 workers will lose their jobs at as many as five plants in North America, it triggered flashbacks for us.
Ten years ago, Janesville experienced a similar event, losing its GM plant and the hundreds of jobs that filled it. The closure coupled with a deep recession acted like a tsunami, spreading financial ruin to many area businesses and households.
But just as Janesville would for a natural disaster, the community assessed the damage, cleaned up the mess and rebuilt. Its residents persisted, and the economy today is stronger for their efforts. The economy is more diversified and, hopefully, better able to withstand the next economic downturn.
For what it’s worth, here’s our advice on how to not only survive a plant closure but to thrive years later.
Tune out the radicals who want to use your community to advance their agendas. Get ready for the media to parachute into your community in the weeks and months after your plant closes and choose the grimmest of grim tales to describe your situation. Mother Jones magazine and other left-wing publications did this to Janesville, and from their perspective, the GM closing was the end of our city. But it wasn’t the end and won’t be for you, either. Toss these articles in the trash.
Build on your best assets. Does a river flow through your city? Do you have a lake? Maybe you are a hotbed for the arts. Whatever your best assets, build on them. A few years after Janesville lost its GM plant, the city unveiled ARISE, a public-private partnership to revitalize the downtown. In the past year, the city has built a town square complete with a kayak launch on the Rock River and an interactive water fountain (paid for with private donations). A pedestrian bridge across the river and the reconstruction of a major thoroughfare are also in the works. ARISE is already paying dividends, with a local credit union recently announcing plans to build a $30 million office complex in the downtown, which will include a “legacy center” detailing General Motor’s history here.
Diversify your economy. In a way, GM’s closing was good for Janesville. We learned the hard way about becoming too dependent on a single entity. GM paid well—no doubt about that—and many of the jobs created in GM’s wake neither pay as much nor offer as many benefits. But at least these jobs are spread across several, unrelated industries. Since GM closed, Dollar General built a huge distribution center here. Several local manufacturers have expanded their operations, while the former GM site is being demolished and prepped for redevelopment. We also have going for us a new microbrewery.
There will be no avoiding pain for communities in Canada, Maryland, Michigan and Ohio slated to lose their plants in the coming months. The recovery will take time, but it will happen. The important thing is to never to give up. You control your fate, and you have the power to recover from this setback. And that’s all it is—a setback.