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Howes: For region reinventing itself, Lordstown is a familiar story

daniel howes
Daniel Howes
Detroit News

They’re waiting for the end at Lordstown, the giant auto plant General Motors says it no longer needs.

Local 1112 President Dave Green comes in every day. He fields calls from worried members, offers counsel about whether to take a transfer or take a chance that union bargainers back in Detroit might get a product to save the plant.

I didn’t hear much optimism during a visit last week to the union hall. More like cynicism laced with anger and fear that a plant building the Chevy Cruze could be reduced to idle status in less than the span of a single contract.

Matt Moorhead, sergeant-at-arms of Local 1112 says, “We all grew up in there basically. Walking away is just brutal. The hurt this has put on the community is devastating.”

But it’s a familiar story in northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley. It’s a place that lost 5,000 jobs in a single day when Youngstown Sheet and Tube closed a mill in 1977. A place that is poised to lose its only auto assembly plant and the vast payroll it pumped into the economy.

It’s also a place that lost Northside Hospital, lost its Kmart distribution center, lost its Dillard’s department store. It’s losing parishes as the Diocese of Youngstown consolidates because priests are in short supply and so are parishioners. And come the end of next month, it will lose its daily newspaper when the Vindicator in Youngstown closes its doors.

“It happens so much,” Moorhead says, “people are just numb to it.”

Not too long from now, the valley likely will find itself without two defining institutions – the GM plant that represented the region’s proud manufacturing heritage and the newspaper that expressed its soul.

They’re the latest casualties in a downward spiral gripping a politically important region trying to reinvent itself. Their struggles are the stuff of a Springsteen song, of dated Rust Belt stereotypes, of tiresome coastal condescension trafficking in local misery.

Add the fact that President Trump outperformed during the last election in the historically blue region, and you have the makings of a lesson for Democrats in 2020: ignore the industrial heartland and its motivated voters at your peril.

What’s changed in the Mahoning Valley since 2016? Its auto plant is going, sucking payroll and tax revenue out of its communities, its newspaper is going, its familiarity with recurring hardship would test the strength of the most enduring optimist.

And yet, the words I heard in Youngstown repeatedly were grit and determination and resiliency. Impatience with old stereotypes stuck in the 1970s, of locals frozen by the shutdown of the steel mills, of uneducated, knuckle-dragging auto workers manning the line in Lordstown.

Dave Green’s having none of it, letting his bachelor’s from Youngstown State and master’s from Geneva College do the talking.

Northeast Ohio’s Mahoning Valley is changing – because it has to.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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