Spotlight: Rust Belt city in U.S. Wisconsin finds way to recovery

Source: Xinhua| 2019-12-30 13:27:24|Editor: zyl
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by Xu Jing, Xing Yue, Liu Yang

CHICAGO, Dec. 29 (Xinhua) -- Janesville, once a manufacturing and industrial production hub located in the southernmost part of U.S. Midwest state of Wisconsin but slumped into recession as a city on the Rust Belt, is maneuvering a way out.

Several cranes were erected on the streets of Janesville for construction projects; a new hotel on the Rock River in downtown has been open for accommodation recently; the senior activity center was full of people playing cards, or learning musical instruments.

Janesville first gained fame for its Parker Pen launched in 1888, but remained stagnant until 1919, when General Motors (GM) bought a bankrupt tractor factory and started vehicle production there.

The GM plant has ushered the city into a period of prosperity that lasted for decades. At its peak in the 1970s, the plant had over 7,000 employees and there were other suppliers in the community supporting the GM plant, further fueling the growth of the economy.

Janesville's nightmare started when GM decided to cut production at the local plant facing stagnant demand. When the closing of the GM plant finally came in 2009, it produced a snowball effect on the local community, as the suppliers also started to reduce the number of jobs.

Mary Buelow moved into Janesville in 2008 to work as a librarian at the Hedberg Public Library. She clearly remembered what happened after the closure of the GM plant.

"The library was very busy, with people coming in, hunting for jobs. People needed to take two to three jobs to make ends meet," she told Xinhua. "It was really hard on the community."

The improvement of Janesville started in 2013, Gale Price, economic development director of Janesville, recalled. "We really started to see an increase in hiring. We started to see an increase in family incomes."

"We identified the assets that we need to have in place that we want to market. We really focused on other industries that we have here already. Then we're building off of those, say plastics, thermoforming, logistics," Price told Xinhua in an interview.

Price attributed the gradual recovery of Janesville to many factors, and the first one is its location. "There are many markets here that you could reach within five hours. So as a central location, we can address the needs of many communities in many areas in a day's drive by a semi-truck."

Being a city bordering the states of Wisconsin and Illinois, "distribution facilities, the major investments in the interstate projects have helped us," Price said frankly.

Healthcare is another assets Janesville has. "There were a lot of healthcare, other aspects to the healthcare industry that can be served here and are already served here by distribution of health care equipment and tools," Price said.

"We've continued our recovery through marketing those assets and attracting companies and then also helping local companies build their business base so that they could better serve their customers and further serve their customers."

"It was a combination of things which has been very successful," he stressed.

Price was excited about the growth Janesville had over the last five years. "We've had local companies that were already here adding over a thousand jobs in one instance; (and in) another instance, over 500 jobs. And they continue to capitalize on their share of the market in their industry."

Price came to Janesville as a city planner 18 years ago from central Ohio, another part of the Rust Belt. He saw many communities in Ohio go through what Janesville has gone through but have not recovered like Janesville has.

The fact is compared to 2009 when GM closed its plant, Janesville now actually has 4,000 more people employed, Price said proudly.

Diversity is another thing the city has benefited from. Craig High School, one of the two public high schools in the City of Janesville, is actually the first public high school in the United States that has signed a one-year exchange program with Chinese public high schools to bring Chinese students in as well as send its students to China.

"It has added diversity and international perspective to a public high school in U.S. Midwest state of Wisconsin," said Mary Christensen, the program coordinator at the Janesville School District.

Being an economic development professional, Price is not satisfied with what the city has achieved. "There are always other opportunities with the growth that we've had over the last five to eight years," he said.

Meanwhile, he saw new challenges.

"We have a need for additional housing to be developed in the community. And the city is having to partner with the apartment developers financially because there's a financial gap in their ability to make a profit," he told Xinhua. "So I probably will never be satisfied, as there are always opportunities to further diversify the community."

"In the end, what's gonna make the community better and more attractive to people is that everyone has some form of opportunity in the community," he stressed.