A Look Back At Changing Gears’ Summer Reports

WBEZ 848 Host Alison Cuddy

Our partners at WBEZ‘s daily news magazine show 848 today featured a retrospective on Changing Gears, including our recent Road Trip stories and a few others.

I sat down with 848 Host Alison Cuddy to provide some insight about the series, including the reason we decided to do it, and a few other tidbits that never made it on the air.

I also provided a preview of some stories we’re planning for the fall. Take a listen.


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

View Midwest Road Trip 2011, Changing Gears in a larger map

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.

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.


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”

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”

Reporter’s Notebook: Downtown Decatur Development

In my recent Road Trip story about Decatur, I spent some time in the city’s downtown area. Odd fact: the city has two Main Streets, although no one could tell me why. It is also the site of Abraham Lincoln’s first “official” political speeches. The news everyone’s excited about in downtown Decatur, though, is ADM’s consolidation of some of its operations from around the city into one office building downtown:

Rodney Powell, owner of Robbie's Grill (Niala Boodhoo)

It’s one of the hottest days of the year in Decatur. So the lRobbie’s Grill on Merchant Street in downtown Decatur isn’t as packed as it usually is at lunchtime, owner Rodney Powell says, even though nearly every table is full.

Powell was “born, raised and baptized” in Decatur, he says. He’s also earned the unofficial title “The Mayor of Merchant Street” for his efforts to bring more people downtown.

That’s why Powell is thrilled that Archer Daniels Midland Co. is bringing 300 to 400 more workers downtown soon as it consolidates its IT, audit and accounting personnel into the Reynolds Building downtown.

“I am a fan of anybody moving anybody into downtown,” he said.  “It’s definitely better for restaurant owners like myself – the more the merrier.”

Continue reading “Reporter’s Notebook: Downtown Decatur Development”

Road Trip: Decatur, The Heart of Illinois Agribusiness

Our Changing Gears road trip continues. Yesterday, I was in Kohler, Wisconsin. Today, I went down state in Illinois to Decatur.

Corn being grown across the street from Archer Daniels Midland Co. headquarters in Decatur (Niala Boodhoo)




DECATUR – Driving south from Chicago, it only takes about 25 miles to hit the corn fields. For the next 150 miles to Decatur, it’s a sea of yellow corn tassels, a head tall.

At night, the central Illinois darkness is broken only by the lights of the corn and soy processing facilities at Archer Daniels Midland Company.

At dawn, the truck and rail traffic starts rolling into the yards of ADM, one of the largest food processing companies in the world.

Continue reading “Road Trip: Decatur, The Heart of Illinois Agribusiness”

Changing Gears’ Midwest Road Trip Is Off And Running

This week, the Changing Gears team is on the road, looking at modern-day company towns around our region. We’re telling the stories of towns that still rely on one big company, or one industry, and how they’re coping during the recession. On one of Kohler's main streets, just between Kohler Co. main offices and The American Club (Niala Boodhoo)

I sat down this morning with Alison Cuddy, host of 848 on our partner station WBEZ in Chicago, to talk about our series.


Here’s our lineup for the week. If you live in one of our company towns, we’d love to hear from you.

KOHLER: Niala Boodhoo visits Kohler, WI, which was created by The Kohler Company, the home fixtures company that is still its biggest employer.

DECATUR: Niala goes to Decatur, IL, where the scent of the agriculture products processed by ADM is in the air.

ISHPEMING: Kate Davidson heads way north, to Ishpeming, MI. It’s still possible to get a mining job here, although no one knows what the future holds.

NORWALK: Dan Bobkoff tells the story of Norwalk Furniture, which was saved by 12 townspeople who invested to keep it open.

ORRVILLE: Dan wraps up the week in Orrville, OH, where you may have heard of Smuckers, but probably don’t know about the family owned businesses that help keep the economy moving.

On the road, Changing Gears explores small-town economies throughout Midwest

On the corner of Main and Division in Ishpeming, Mich., Buck's Restaurant is known for serving big breakfasts and big portions to residents who depend on the mining industry for survival.

Changing Gears reporters have been out on the road. Our team has traveled through the Great Lakes in search of places where local economies, and town cultures, revolve around a single employer. Some are actual company towns – but not all of them can be defined that way.

Often overshadowed by bigger cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, citizens of these places have experienced the Midwest economy in their own way, and developed different approaches to riding out the Great Recession.

Starting Monday, we’ll bring you stories of five such places.

Niala Boodhoo begins our reports in Kohler, Wisc., a planned village created by the Kohler Company in 1912. The company remains a lynchpin of the town, as well as a global leader in plumbing products. She also visits Decatur, Illinois, the unofficial soybean capital of the world and home to food-production kingpin Archer Daniels Midland, a Fortune 500 company.

Continue reading “On the road, Changing Gears explores small-town economies throughout Midwest”