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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2005 08:53 am

Future shocked

Pummeled by globalization, Centralia adapts old resources to new technology

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To mark Centralia’s 150th anniversary two years ago, community leaders installed a big metal sign on the rooftop of the historic Frost Building. It declares: “Centralia Your Opportunity.”
The sign, which overlooks the old Illinois Central railroad tracks, is a replica of one erected in the 1920s by the local Rotary Club and taken down in the 1950s. Its message had been credited with inspiring those passing through to give Centralia a try. The city’s leaders hope that the new display will deliver the same result. In recent years, this 14,000-resident southern-Illinois town has experienced multiple negative consequences of the emerging global economy. Centralia’s downtown storefronts are largely empty. A tattoo parlor and a coin shop occupy prime retail space near the main intersection. The Mercantile Bank, built in 1882, is now a music store where, says proprietor J.D. Chapman, a former radio DJ, the biggest part of his customer base is on eBay. Centralia’s retail businesses suffered when a succession of major employers — Meridian Automotive Systems, Littelfuse Inc., Greif Bros. Corp., Sealed Air Corp., and World Color Press — closed their doors between 2001 and 2003, laying off almost 3,000 workers. Many Centralia residents who earned $14 per hour in factories two years ago now make minimum wage working in fast-food restaurants. Other laid-off workers are attending community-college programs, retraining for careers in health care, technology, forklift operations, or trucking. The social impact of job losses includes increased crime, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and demands on churches and nonprofits to provide additional food, clothing, and shelter. The nation’s economy is moving from mass production to mass customization, which requires a leaner, more skilled, and flexible workforce, says Cesar Suarez, Centralia’s director of economic development. Factory production that was once carried out by 50 workers is now accomplished with 10. “Low-skill labor is going out of the country,” Suarez says. State legislators and city leaders are taking steps to attract new manufacturing operations, encourage entrepreneurship, promote the region’s technology center, and support production of alternative fuels. These efforts may require years to bear fruit, yet many Centralians are optimistic about their city’s future.
Centralia’s current problems began a quarter-century ago, when the Illinois Central Railroad started laying off employees, says Keith Brown, executive director of BCMW Community Services, a local agency that assists the poor. Brown’s father and grandfather worked for IC’s car shops and yards, building and repairing coal cars, when the company employed almost 1,000 people in Centralia. The association between the railroad and the city had always been close: Centralia, founded at the crossroads of several major rail lines, was named for the IC and became its division headquarters in 1910. In addition to providing passenger service and shipping produce and manufactured products to market, the IC provided service to 65 coal mines throughout southern Illinois, including mines in Centralia that produced more than 5,000 tons of coal per day. Centralia’s coal mining ended when its No. 5 Mine exploded and killed 111 workers in 1947. In the first half of the century, there was interdependence between the coal mining and railroad industries: The coal companies needed the railroad to ship coal tonnage across the U.S. and Canada, and the railroad required coal to fuel its steam locomotives. Marion County, where Centralia is located, also experienced an oil boom in the late 1930s and ’40s, which helped the area recover from the Depression. At its peak, the Salem-Lake Centralia oil field was the largest producer east of the Mississippi. In the 1960s and ’70s, as coal and the railroad were becoming less significant to Centralia’s economy, factories producing automotive components, packaging, printing, and electronics moved in. In the mid-1990s, incomes grew, and the poverty rate dropped. By 2000, the unemployment rate was down to 4.4 percent — the lowest in a decade. And then everything started to go wrong. One by one, the big factories started closing, and unemployment shot up to 11 percent. For 30 months, Marion County had the highest rate of joblessness in Illinois. “It was the second wave” to buffet Centralia, says Geoffrey Hewings, director of the Regional Economics Applications Laboratory and economics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Between 1970 and 1990, Illinois lost a half-million manufacturing jobs, and another 220,000 have disappeared since 1990, he says. The layoffs and closings aren’t the result of the companies’ losing money, says Dennis Hoffman, labor-market economist at the Illinois Department of Employment Security in Mount Vernon, just south of Centralia. There were other reasons they closed — some just wanted to be more profitable, he says.
The 2004 Heartland Report on Illinois Poverty showed that even during the prosperous 1990s, poverty increased throughout much of rural Illinois. In 31 Illinois counties, 11 percent of residents, or more, were living below the poverty level; 75 percent of those counties were in the southern or southwestern region of the state. “Poverty is shifting in Illinois,” Hoffman says. The report also showed that long-time key industries such as agriculture, mining, and manufacturing are leaving rural areas, exacerbating unemployment and underemployment throughout southern Illinois. Like many rural counties, Marion County has a labor surplus. The underground economy — for instance, the drug trade — is on the rise, the report says. Gary Roberts, a former Meridian employee, has given up looking for work. A tiny man with darting eyes and a nervous manner, Roberts spends his day tending the garden on his property, selling vegetables and fruits to motorists from a bright-green roadside stand. At 23, Roberts and his wife, Regina, set off from Rockford, Ill., in early 1970s to find work in Arkansas, but their car, a ’61 Ford, broke down in Centralia. Roberts got hired at Rockwell International, earning $2.90 per hour, and stayed for the next 29 years, until the very end.  “I kept hoping it wouldn’t happen,” he says. “I guess it was denial.”
Roberts took a temporary job stacking boxes at another company last year, but his supervisor said that he was trying too hard and might have a heart attack. “I’m getting too old for that stuff,” Roberts says. He tried to get his general education diploma but couldn’t score high enough. Without a high-school degree, he can’t enroll in the Dislocated Worker Program at Centralia’s community college, Kaskaskia College, to try a new career. At 58, Roberts isn’t old enough to draw his pension, but he can’t get hired anywhere, either. He has cataracts and heart problems and is without health insurance or Medicaid. The money he earns selling produce and his wife’s $600 disability check are the couple’s entire monthly income. “If I’d filed for disability, I wouldn’t be wondering how I was going to put tires on my vehicle,” Roberts says. “Right now, I got nothing.”
Centralia’s Salvation Army, located on a shady residential street on the west side of the railroad tracks, has provided basic social services to the needy for more than 100 years. Besides running a food pantry and thrift store that gives out clothing and furniture, the Salvation Army distributes school supplies and provides assistance with energy bills. Sharon Hall began working at the Salvation Army five years ago, before the plant layoffs. Back then, she distributed groceries to 200 families per month, but now she gives out 600 bags of staple foods. “We have a bread line on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” she says. “Of the 50 people in line, 45 families really need the food.”
“Most of the people who come to me are people who say they have applications everywhere and can’t get hired,” Hall says. Since welfare reform began, it is almost impossible to get public aid, she says. To qualify, people must attend the Illinois Employment and Training Center’s Job Club on Tuesdays to learn interviewing skills. That doesn’t help, she says, because there aren’t any jobs anyway. People are living in tents and in cars, Hall says. Centralia has no homeless shelter, so some families go to shelters in Belleville or Olney, an hour away, until they can get employment or public aid. Centralia has a “couch” homeless population, Hall says — people go from one relative to another. “You can’t live if you are working at McDonald’s, unless you have some kind of subsidy,” she says. With limited public transportation and no buses running after 7 p.m., most people working a night shift in Centralia have no way to get home if they don’t have access to a car. And without a car, it’s hard to go back to school or arrange for child care, Hall notes. In some cases, whole families worked at the plants that closed, so nobody had an income to help with the transition. “People are so dug in holes that there’s no way out,” she says. “We want to mainstream everybody, but not everybody can be a respiratory therapist.”
At least, people in Centralia help each other, she says. “This is a good area when you’re in trouble,” she says. “Centralia is a community that does step up.”

Centralia’s employment base is fairly diverse, with more than 1,000 state jobs and the Warren G. Murray Developmental Center for the disabled, St. Mary’s Good Samaritan Hospital, and the Centralia Correctional Center. Prisons have become one of the top three employers in the state. Nearly 400 work at the Centralia Correctional Center. The facility holds more than 1,500 inmates, twice the number it was designed to accommodate when it was built in 1980. When the correctional center opened, new people began moving to Centralia, says Capt. Rick Densmore of the Centralia Police Department. “Families moved from all over when the prison opened,” he says. The police started seeing cocaine, Densmore says, then crack and organized drug traffic: “It took a long time to get that busted up.”
Half of the residents in Centralia’s public housing are families of the prisoners, Densmore says. The change had a big impact on local schools. “Young people are on heroin,” he says. “We’re having accidental deaths with overdoses.” During the past three years, the production and use of methamphetamine, or “meth” — a powerful central nervous system stimulant that is highly addictive — has become the biggest drug problem. Centralia Police Chief Larry Evans says that his officers make daily arrests for possession or manufacture of meth. By year’s end, Centralia police will have made more than 500 drug arrests. “Drug crimes drive other crimes,” Evans says. “Domestics, forgeries, bad checks are all potentially tied to a drug problem.”
The National Bank Building, built in 1866 at the corner of Broadway and South Locust Street, has an impressive façade with tall columns that recall a prosperous and expansive time in Centralia’s history. The Community Resource Center occupies the bank building now, providing social services, including counseling for teen patients, to low-income residents. Although statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show that the incidence of teenage pregnancy has declined nationwide, that isn’t what Jo Ann Glenn is seeing at the resource center. Glenn is a case manager with the Illinois Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Child and Adolescent Health. “I’m seeing junior-high kids where it used to be high-school,” she says. Women are working two jobs or working until midnight, she says, and the kids are alone all night. Many girls who have come to her say that they wanted to get pregnant to please their boyfriends. “After they have that baby, they want to give it back,” Glenn says. “The baby is crying, and they wonder how are they going to make this thing stop.”
Eleven years ago, when Glenn started working at the center, the families of the girls she counseled were living on public aid. Now, she says, the incidence of teenage pregnancy isn’t income- or race-related.
“Planned Parenthood is not there, so they can’t get birth control,” she says. “How are you going to go to the doctor if you don’t have money?”
In Marion County, only 8 percent of the population has a college degree. Rural counties have the highest high-school and college noncompletion rates in the state, according to the 2004 Heartland Report on Illinois Poverty. Thirty percent of adults in southern Illinois read at a fifth-grade level, says Vickie Cook, dean of continuing education at Kaskaskia College. Many of the factory workers laid off during the recent closings were relatively young, able, and determined enough to retrain for new careers. Those workers whose jobs were sent overseas qualified for two full years of unemployment benefits, making it easier for them to support themselves while training.
Stephanie Galbreath was an assembly-line worker earning $14 per hour when she received seven days’ notice after 18 years of service. Like her Meridian co-workers, she was denied severance pay as a result of the company’s bankruptcy proceedings and qualified for just six months of unemployment benefits. “They expect you to have a whole life-changing event in six months,” she says. “It’s hard to make it in a small town when all your industry is closing down.”
Galbreath worked 20 hours a week at UPS this past year, toiled part-time at St. Mary’s Good Samaritan Hospital and mowed lawns while enrolled in Kaskaskia College’s respiratory-therapy program. Her UPS job ended in January, when the work was moved to a larger distribution center.
Despite the challenges, Galbreath earned all A’s. She assumed that grades would make a difference on her résumé. “I busted my ass,” Galbreath says. “I was real stubborn — I wouldn’t give in.”
Industrial Park No. 1, south of the city along Route 51, is where most of Centralia’s manufacturing plants are located. The empty Meridian plant sits across the road from Graphic Packaging Corp., which on June 1 announced the layoffs of 30 workers from its laminations facility. The layoffs spawned entrepreneurship. Greg Klie and two partners, former Meridian workers, began BK Metal Works, a die shop, in the empty shell of the old plant. Meridian’s closing actually improved his prospects, Klie says.
Klie began working at Rockwell right out of high school, where he had learned business and welding. He was one of the few promoted into Rockwell’s apprenticeship program. Klie stayed through two ownership changes, from Rockwell to Cambridge Industries and, finally, Meridian Automotive. Before Meridian made the formal announcement that it would be closing, Klie obtained a $30,000 bank loan to purchase equipment. He took on contract work from engineers who had left to work at other manufacturing firms. Now a partnership, BK Metal Works has enough orders to begin hiring additional workers. “We’re getting ready to really grow here,” Klie says. Klie repaid his bank loan and purchased a new home 20 miles away, where, he says, the schools are better. “I never would have started my own business; I wouldn’t have had the backbone to do it,” he says. “I was pushed into it.”
Centralia has made some recent progress toward revitalizing its downtown. Last spring, its City Council pledged $250,000 in tax-increment financing monies to support the restoration of the vacant Illinois Theatre. FGM Architects, in Mount Vernon, was recently selected to oversee renovation of the former movie theater, which will become a venue for small musical and comedy productions. The theater’s marquee has been lit for the first time in years. The Veterans of Foreign Wars Building is undergoing a similar $500,000 renovation by a Murphysboro dermatologist who is also real-estate developer. The retrofitted building will house downtown business offices and retail stores. The Centralia Regional Tech Center opened a year ago with financial assistance from the University of Illinois and the South Central Regional Mass Transit District. Local residents may now earn college degrees by way of online courses from the University of Illinois, Eastern Illinois University, Rend Lake College, or Southern Illinois University — the tech center’s partners. The big news was an October announcement by Midwest Agri-Energy Production of a plan to build a $73 million ethanol plant in the oilfields between Centralia and Salem. The plant will use methane gas emitted from the fields to achieve energy savings while converting locally grown corn into high-grade ethanol and high-protein livestock feed. As gas prices continue to rise, the demand for ethanol is sure to increase. Indeck Development, a partner in the project, will apply clean coal-burning technology, revitalizing the area’s coal mines. Fifty jobs and an estimated $110 million per year will directly and indirectly benefit the region, says Chris Daniels, a member of Midwest Agri-Energy Production’s board. Another energy project, still in the conceptual stage, is a billion-dollar facility at Rend Lake, 40 miles from Centralia, which would convert coal to synthetic natural gas. That project has the potential to generate 300 coal-mining jobs, 150 administrative jobs, and 1,000 spinoff jobs, says Kurt Granberg, D-Carlyle, state representative in the 107th District of Illinois, who has been working to get the deal approved. In a crazy twist of circumstances, Centralia’s seemingly outmoded resources — railroads, oil fields, coal mines and cornfields — have coalesced to presage what could lead to a brighter future in the new economy. But if anything guarantees hope for this small Midwestern city, it will be the loyalty and sheer doggedness of its citizens.

Also from Mary Rickard

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