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Farm town dealing with hard lessons of free trade
Community puts focus on economic diversity.
Gannett News Service
Posted on December 4, 2003

Gannett News
Ruth Schumacher, former Huffy employee in Celina, Ohio, works at a Holiday Inn in Celina. Shumacher, now 64, earned $12 per hour at Huffy until the bicycle plant moved to China.
CELINA, Ohio - Laid-off factory worker Ruth Schumacher rises before the sun most days and earns $7 per hour tending the breakfast bar at a Holiday Inn in Celina, Ohio. She would like to set out a tip jar for the occasional dollar, but management forbids it.

After work, she occasionally goes next door to shop at Wal-Mart or at Kmart one town away.

Never mind that Wal-Mart is a major reason Schumacher no longer has a $12-per-hour job at Huffy Corp.'s bicycle plant. Five years ago, Wal-Mart pressured Huffy to lower the cost of its bikes, so Huffy closed its Celina plant. Schumacher's job and the job her husband held at Huffy eventually ended up in China.

"We can't go out to eat every Friday, Saturday and Sunday like we used to," Bob Schumacher said in a tone suggesting there are worse things. "When you lose a job like that you cut back on everything, that's all. I guess that's life."

But there were hard feelings, to be sure. And lessons.

"I resent them," then-Mayor Craig Klopfleisch told reporters after Huffy rebuffed the government's $14 million incentive package to stay. "They have said they are done with us, so maybe it's time to say we are done with them."

Huffy's departure nearly tripled Mercer County's unemployment rate - from 3.5 percent to 9 percent. And it quickly turned country bureaucrats into experts on globalization.

The lessons of free trade, city and county officials say, can be applied to small towns across the country that are losing their manufacturing bases.

Lesson No. 1: "Don't put so many eggs in one basket," said the county's economic development director, Larry Stelzer, an avid biker who peddles a Raleigh today, never a Huffy. At one point, Celina's basket held two major employment sources - Huffy and machine manufacturer AGCO Corp. AGCO closed its Mercer County plant in 1995. Losing Huffy completed a one-two punch that staggered Celina.

But Celina has overcome larger obstacles. The town was founded two centuries ago on a drained swamp. Today, it sits on the nation's second-largest man-made lake, where $100,000 lakefront condos are being built.

"We got over it," Stelzer said of the closures. "We got busy rebuilding."

Lesson No. 2: Grow locally.

The majority of new jobs in Mercer County (the unemployment rate is 4.1 percent today) stem from the expansion of mom-and-pop businesses like tool-and-dye manufacturers and fabrication shops.

"These businesses are controlled by the people who live here, not some corporate heads living somewhere else," Stelzer says. "These businesses are not going to leave. They have roots."

Lesson No. 3: Turn idled workers into a magnet for new employers. As soon as Huffy left Celina, Mercer County began touting its laid-off workers and boosting their morale. The ex-workers were collectively named grand marshal of the annual Lake Festival Parade.

"We're not the types to get carried away crying in our beer, " Stelzer said. "We turned the loss into an unbelievable marketing tool."

In national and international manufacturing magazines, ads read: "Huffy closure unleashes work force of 1,000."

The results were impressive. No sooner had Huffy turned exclusively to imports then Mercer County landed or expanded three companies, Stelzer said.

Celina Aluminum Precision Technology, a subsidiary of Honda Foundry Co. of Japan, added 92 workers in a $13.4 million expansion.

Basic Grains, a manufacturer of rice cakes from Canada, opened a plant in the county with 80 employees before doubling the work force.

De Ruijter International, a rubber manufacturer from the Netherlands, hired about 10 workers.

"If you have a good work force, the companies will come," Stelzer said.

"You have to diversify your economy. One day we're sitting here all nice and sassy and pretty and then all of a sudden - boom. No one is immune to these plant closings."

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