Everything You Need to Know About the Changing Gears Team’s Midwest Road Trip


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This afternoon, Changing Gears reporters wrapped up a week on the road, traveling to places throughout the Midwest where local economies and town cultures revolve around single employers. We started our trip Monday in Kohler, Wisc., and completed our trip today in Orrville, Ohio.

If you missed anything, here’s a recap of our road-trip coverage:

MONDAY: Niala Boodhoo visited Kohler, Wisconsin, a town created by The Kohler Company nearly a century ago. The home-fixtures and plumbing company remains the county’s largest employer. Main story

TUESDAY: The heart of Illinois’ agribusiness lies down-state in Decatur, home of giant Archer Daniels Midland, which had sales of $62 billion last year. Main story | Reporter’s notebook

WEDNESDAY: Far to the north, the iron-ore mining industry is alive and well in Ishpeming, Mich. Kate Davidson traveled to the Upper Peninsula and found perhaps one of the last places in Michigan where blue-collar workers hold some degree of job stability. Main story

THURSDAY: Dan Bobkoff told the story of Norwalk, Ohio, where the town’s major employer, Norwalk Furniture, was rescued by 12 local citizens who bought and invested to keep it open after previous owners faced financial turmoil. Main story

FRIDAY: You may have already heard of Smuckers, located in the north-central Ohio town of Orrville, but you may not have known there are plenty of other family-owned businesses in town that have kept the local economy moving for decades. Main story

You can find a catalog of both our radio and online coverage during our Midwest Road Trip here.

Midwest Memo: Cook County’s Foreclosure Crisis, and How a Debt Default Could Affect Michigan

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Cook County’s foreclosure crisis. Despite proclamations that the recession is over, officials in Cook County, Illinois are nonetheless concerned about the 70,000 outstanding foreclosure cases within their borders. They held an emergency summit Thursday to discuss possible responses, according to our partner station WBEZ. Community organizer Leon Finney says the group will consider “home-ownership counseling, tighter bank regulations and stronger courts.”

2. Debt concerns reach Michigan. The state of Michigan receives approximately $400 million per week in federal funds, receipts that make up 44 percent of its $45 billion budget. John Nixon, the state’s budget director, isn’t sure how Michigan will continue to make payments next week if the federal government defaults, according to the Associated Press. Gov. Rick Snyder is concerned. “We’re prepared for a number of scenarios,” he told the AP.

3. Japanese manufacturing rises. Japanese manufacturing activity, which has strong ties to the Midwest economy in the U.S., saw activity increase at the fastest pace since the March nuclear disaster in July, according to Reuters. The Markit/JMMA index rose to a seasonally adjusted 52.1 in July, up from 50.7 in June. It’s the third straight month the manufacturing sector expanded, and an expert says if the trend is sustained, it will be “a vote of confidence in the economic outlook.” Earlier this year, Changing Gears examined the ripple effects of the Japanese economy throughout the Midwest.

Milwaukee Streetcar Project Approved, but Hurdles Remain Ahead

It took more than a decade of political wrangling for the Milwaukee Common Council to craft and approve a plan for a $64.6 million downtown streetcar project that was finally green-lighted Monday.

Sort of.

Because of concerns aired during contentious debates about possible cost overruns, the council limited current spending to engineering expenses. No money for construction will be released until a comptroller reviews the project.

Continue reading “Milwaukee Streetcar Project Approved, but Hurdles Remain Ahead”

Midwest Memo: Chicago may eliminate head tax, Detroit prioritizes its neighborhoods

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Head tax faces guillotine. Mayor Rahm Emanuel pledged to end the city’s head tax on businesses with 50 or more employees during his campaign. Now Chicago aldermen are negotiating what comes next, according to our partner station WBEZ. Companies with 50 or more employees are taxed $4 per month per each full-timer on the payroll. Although the city generates $20 million in revenue each year, some officials are concerned the tax discourages expansion.

2. Detroit mayor unveils overhaul. The city of Detroit will no longer treat its neighborhoods equally. They will instead be designated as steady, transitional or distressed, and city services will be prioritized in certain areas, according to The Detroit News. Detroit mayor Dave Bing said the move is a “short-term intervention strategy” to save certain neighborhoods. The redeployment strategy begins in two weeks. “We must be smarter about how we align our resources,” Bing told The News.

3. Ford building second India factory. Following in the footsteps of rivals General Motors and Tata Motors, Ford announced today it would build a factory in the western state of Gujarat in India. The $906 million facility will be operational in 2014, according to Bloomberg. The factory is Ford’s second in India, with another plant located in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Analysts said the move gives Ford access not only to northern India, but perhaps to the European market as well.

Road Trip: Norwalk, Ohio Saves its Company

When a company bears the name of its hometown, it can be hard to separate the two. Such is the case with Norwalk Furniture and the town of Norwalk in Northern Ohio.

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Saving Norwalk Furniture means about 150 locals have jobs again.

“It really is our flagship company,” said Sue Lesch, Norwalk’s mayor. “It’s the company we’re proud of. We’re known for furniture all over the country.”

For more than a hundred years, Norwalk Furniture made custom-order sofas and chairs in its Ohio factory. For a long time, it was the biggest business in town, employing about 700 in this town of 17,000.

Continue reading “Road Trip: Norwalk, Ohio Saves its Company”

Your Story: A company town confronting change, audio slideshow

Alex Fries is a twenty-year old music education student at Vandercook College of Music in Chicago. His hometown is Norwalk, Ohio, one of the towns Changing Gears traveled to as part of our Midwestern company town road trip.

Here, Alex talks about what it feels like to live in Norwalk during an economic transition, and the tensions that emerge. The photographs are among those he took while growing up in the town.

Midwest’s Manufacturing Output Flat in June, but Regional Data Better than Nation Overall

Orders for U.S. manufactured goods fell 2.1 percent in June across the country, the Commerce Department announced Wednesday, worsening fears the nation’s economy remains stuck in a rut.

In the Midwest, manufacturing data was more mixed.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago said its Midwest Manufacturing Index fell 0.1 percent in June to a seasonally adjusted level of 84.0, a mark essentially unchanged from May. Gains in the steel and machinery sectors offset a 1.3 percent decline in auto sector production.

The steel and machinery sectors increased output by 1.7 percent and 1.0 percent, respectively, according to the Chicago Fed.

Overall, regional output rose 7.1 percent from June 2010 levels and national output increased 4.1 percent year over year.

Midwest Memo: Demand for Manufactured Good Slumps in June; Fuel-Economy Deal Likely

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. How default may affect Chicago. The city of Chicago plans to borrow $800 million later this year. A short-term debt default wouldn’t affect those plans, but could affect interest rates. Crain’s Chicago Business analyzed what a downgrade of the federal government’s credit rating would mean for the city and state of Illinois: the addition of “hundreds of millions of dollars in interest costs to bonds.”

2. Demand for manufactures goods falls. Orders for U.S. manufactured goods fell in June and another barometer of business spending declined, deepening worries that the economy’s current slump could worsen. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that durable-goods orders fell 2.1 percent, according to Reuters. That follows a 1.9 percent increase in May. Capital goods orders, excluding aircraft, fell 0.4 percent in June.

3. Fuel-economy deal ahead. Officials in the Obama administration say recent changes will make it easier to reach a deal with automakers to increase fuel economy. A proposal for light trucks to get 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025 has been lowered to 54.5, according to the Associated Press. Last week, Michigan lawmakers said the higher proposal was “overly aggressive.” In 2009, automakers reached an agreement to boost fuel-economy standards to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.

Ishpeming: Where Iron Ore Built a City

The Empire Mine has been producing iron ore for more than 40 years. Photo courtesy of Cliffs Natural Resources

Our Changing Gears project is on the road, bringing you stories of towns where one company still affects everybody’s lives. Today we head north, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s where North America’s biggest supplier of iron ore has been blasting the earth, and creating jobs, for more than 160 years.  [display_podcast] Continue reading “Ishpeming: Where Iron Ore Built a City”