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Springfield, Ohio: A Shrinking City Faces A Tough Economic Future

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Molly Mattin pours beer at Mother Stewart's Brewing in Springfield. The new brewery, located in an old warehouse space, is part of the city's downtown revival that includes new shops and a farmers market.

Much of the anger and anxiety in the 2016 election are fueled by the sense that economic opportunity is slipping away for many Americans. This week, as part of NPR's collaborative project with member stations, A Nation Engaged, we're asking the question: What can be done to create economic opportunity for more Americans?

There are plenty of Springfields in the U.S. Thirty-three, according to one government count. The Springfield in Ohio is a blue-collar city with a lot of history, pain and pride: a place with an uncertain future.

"When you look at what makes America great, what makes America not great, our ups and our downs, Springfield represents all of that," says Kevin Rose, a historian with the Turner Foundation, a local philanthropy.

For years now, the not so great seems to have the upper hand. "Springfield is a rather typical small city that has grown poorer over the years," says Roger Baker, the city's mayor in the '70s and '80s.

Poorer — a lot poorer. Median incomes fell an astounding 27 percent in Springfield between 1999 and 2014, more than any metropolitan area in the country, according to the Pew Research Center.

Mike Calabrese has seen it closeup. He runs Opportunities for Individual Change, a job skills program in Springfield. "Throughout the '90s we lost in Clark County, Ohio, 22,000 high-paying blue-collar jobs. We've never recovered from it."

Jobs have come back to Springfield. The unemployment rate is pretty low — around 5 percent.

But wages have been stuck in a trough. For many in town, a middle-class life is out of reach. And it's hard to see a way out.

Take one of the big employers in Springfield — Navistar, a truck manufacturer. Jason Barlow, who represents Navistar workers for the United Auto Workers union, used to work on the assembly line.

"When I hired in in 1995, I hired in at $17.65 an hour. ... Now an employee hires in at $15.68," he says. And that doesn't account for inflation.

If you haven't graduated from college — and only 15 percent of the city's adults older than 25 have a bachelor's degree — the best jobs in town are still in manufacturing.

But now they pay less than they once did, and they require more skills.

"People need to have a little bit more to be able to do the things on the shop floor," says Ross McGregor, vice president of Pentaflex, which makes parts for heavy trucks. "We have processes ... that used to be completely driven by operators loading parts in and out. Now we have transfer systems. We have robots."

McGregor points to a machine moving parts through a stamping operation. "This is an automated assembly unit," he says. "This is a process that required four operators before. Now only one operator needs to run it."

All of the automation and keeping a lid on labor costs allow manufacturers like McGregor to compete with a low-cost country like Vietnam.

But for workers, it's all part of what's put the squeeze on living standards. That squeeze on blue-collar workers — the march of automation and global competition — isn't just landing on Springfield. It's happening throughout the U.S. and the industrialized world.

Gregg McGillivray has done different jobs at Pentaflex, where he has worked for 31 years. Now he loads and unloads trucks. He says he has made a good life in Springfield. But he can't imagine how it will be the same for young people.

"I think it would be very hard to be starting out with a family now like I did 31 years ago," he says. McGillivray chooses his words carefully, and they're pretty pessimistic. "I don't think it's as good as it used to be. I just don't think it's as easy to get by in the world today."

There's no doubt it's harder to get by in Springfield.

"We're in a tough time economically, trying to figure out how the new economy filters down to the majority of the population," says Warren Copeland, Springfield's mayor.

As it transitions away from manufacturing, the city relies more on service jobs, like in call centers or nursing homes. But they don't pay well. So local officials are looking for something — anything — that gives the city an identity, a way to distinguish itself.

One of them, quite modestly, is geography. Some trucking distribution companies have come to Springfield because it's convenient to two big interstates. And incomes did tick up last year. But that doesn't get Springfield closer to the knowledge economy of tech or finance or design.

"Quite honestly, that's a struggle," Copeland says. "In Ohio, every city like us is in competition with Columbus, which is the go-go growth city in Ohio. They have the advantage of a large university, major medical facilities, a number of insurance companies. So they really have a lot of the well-paying paperwork jobs that are part of the economy that's performing well."

Springfield's population is older, less educated and whiter than national averages. And that population has fallen over the years — from more than 80,000 in the 1970s to less than 60,000 today. Many young people go to college and leave — the brain drain.

To help end the exodus, Springfield is banking on a revival of downtown. And on a recent warm weekday evening, a farmers market was in full swing as a good-sized crowd shopped for artisanal cheeses, locally grown produce and baked goods. The mood was friendly and relaxed. Exactly the kind of scene tourism and development officials dream about.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in Springfield's downtown. And it shows. There's a new hospital, an ice rink, museums, a new brewery and a performing arts center.

Kevin Rose, the local historian, says there's a big emphasis on cultural tourism that draws upon the city's history. Back in the 19th century, Springfield made more farm equipment than anyplace in the world. The Wright brothers patented their airplane here. And there's some notable architecture.

"So one of the big things we've had recently was the restoration of our Frank Lloyd Wright house," Rose says. "A lot of our cultural tourism enterprise activities are based through that."

But less than a mile from downtown is a neighborhood where no tourist would venture. Charles Rollins welcomes me to Many Pathways, an addiction recovery clubhouse he runs with help from his twin brother, Michael.

"Drug and alcohol abuse hinder the people of this community severely," Charles says. The streets here are bleak, with dilapidated and abandoned buildings. Guys walk around looking lost or haunted. Some of them stop by Many Pathways for safety, companionship or to attend 12-step meetings.

"Definitely, an increase in young Caucasian men turning to heroin," Charles says. It's part of the opioid crisis sweeping this part of the country. Michael Rollins says addiction isn't just battering young people and their families. It harms the local economy, since addicts spend their cash on drugs and can't be relied on for steady work.

"An individual can't function on any level until they satisfy that need for the drug on a daily basis," Michael says. The drug crisis, and not just heroin, is hitting Springfield just as downtown revives and companies like the truck maker Navistar are starting to hire again.

Employers say it's gotten harder to find job applicants who can pass a drug test. And it's not only big, impersonal forces like automation driving people out of the middle class. Self-destructive behavior holds people back.

Mike Calabrese has as much perspective on Springfield's challenges as anyone. He has worked for the jobs skills program Opportunities for Individual Change for 39 years. And he says the multiple problems facing the city and young people here can be discouraging. "But I get pumped back up when I hear a great story about a kid who got his GED and he's got job skills. He's legitimately working and bringing money into a household," Calabrese says.

Blake Drummond is one of those great stories. He's 20, and a few years ago he was a high school dropout making $9 an hour in an unskilled factory job.

"We were assembling Corvette manifolds. And my only job was to just push two metal rods into the manifold," Drummond says. "Every day, eight hours a day, two breaks and a lunch. But they wouldn't switch us around. Every day, I'm putting the two rods in. I kind of felt like a robot, honestly, just standing there doing the same thing. It was bad."

After getting his GED and taking construction and building classes, Drummond now earns $21 an hour. He's supervising a crew renovating a historic building downtown. He enjoys his work and doesn't feel like a robot anymore. "I always say I feel like I was a carpenter in my past life because I can just pick up a tool sometimes and immediately know what it's used for, what to do with it and how to use it."

Drummond says he'd like to say in Springfield, and help build up the city. But if opportunities dry up here, he can always pack up his tools and find work somewhere else.

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