Factory And Auto Towns Shift Gears

Betty Esper i i

Betty Esper spent 36 years working at U.S. Steel's Homestead Works. The mill closed in the 1980s. A few years later, Esper began her second career as Homestead's mayor. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Betty Esper

Betty Esper spent 36 years working at U.S. Steel's Homestead Works. The mill closed in the 1980s. A few years later, Esper began her second career as Homestead's mayor.

David Greene/NPR

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U.S. Steel's mill i i

U.S. Steel's massive mill in the Pittsburgh suburb of Homestead closed in the 1980s. The land is now occupied by a business complex and mall. David Greene/NPR hide caption

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U.S. Steel's mill

U.S. Steel's massive mill in the Pittsburgh suburb of Homestead closed in the 1980s. The land is now occupied by a business complex and mall.

David Greene/NPR
Jean Matheny i i

Jean Matheny is acting mayor of Moraine, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. She's standing in front of a GM SUV assembly plant that was closed permanently last year. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Jean Matheny

Jean Matheny is acting mayor of Moraine, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. She's standing in front of a GM SUV assembly plant that was closed permanently last year.

David Greene/NPR
Moraine, Ohio i i

The town of Moraine, Ohio, just south of Dayton, lost its GM truck assembly plant last year. Like other communities in Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, Moraine is looking for new industries — and a new identity David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Moraine, Ohio

The town of Moraine, Ohio, just south of Dayton, lost its GM truck assembly plant last year. Like other communities in Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, Moraine is looking for new industries — and a new identity

David Greene/NPR

Some of the hardest-hit communities in this recession are the towns and cities that have lost jobs in the automobile industry — or worse, saw an entire auto plant close.

It's a predicament the steel towns around Pittsburgh know well. They had to search for new identities after the steel industry buckled in the 1980s.

During a recent visit to the Steel City, I sought out some of the people who brought Pittsburgh through its hardest times to see if there were any lessons to learn.

From Industrial Mill To Waterfront Shopping

In the Pittsburgh suburb of Homestead, I found longtime Mayor Betty Esper. She spent three decades working in U.S. Steel's massive Homestead Works, a sprawling mill across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh that shut down in 1986. She was elected mayor several years after the mill closed.

Esper says her community lost tax revenue during those years with so many people out of work. The town had to slash its budget and cut services.

Over time, Homestead recovered. The key, Esper said, was redeveloping the site of the old mill. It's now a sprawling waterfront shopping and business complex. And the money generated from the property is fueling Homestead's economy — and helping the town weather the current recession.

Esper looks to communities in the Midwest that are losing car manufacturing jobs, or seeing plants close. She says she knows how they're feeling.

"Right now, they're in a dark tunnel. All they see is darkness as far as I can see," she says. "Until the waterfront opened up, then we came to the end of the tunnel and we saw some brightness. I can't tell them how long that tunnel is."

After driving from Pittsburgh west to Dayton, Ohio, I found someone in that very tunnel.

When GM Leaves Town

Jean Matheny is the acting mayor of a small suburb of Dayton. In December, she says, the city of Moraine — and the Dayton region — lost some of its identity when General Motors shut down its Moraine truck assembly plant.

"You're just going to have to part yourself away from being GM, Moraine," Matheny says. "We'll just have to be Moraine with no GM with it. And it's just going to take time to build that up. It's something that's not going to happen overnight."

No two towns or cities are identical. But maybe history has a way of repeating itself. And Matheny is dealing with many of the struggles Esper spoke about back in Homestead. What to do with a vacant factory property? How to make up for lost tax revenues, with so many local people unemployed?

Anticipating that loss in tax dollars this year, the town has made budget cuts across the board. That includes much of the funding for this summer's heritage festival.

"We will survive," Matheny says. "We're a strong little city. I don't look for us to go anywhere, but stay right here and get back on the map."

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