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When Henry and Clement Studebaker set up their wagon shop in South Bend in 1852, the city’s population was less than 200. A little more than a century later, thanks to the influence of Studebaker and other manufacturing giants that built their fortunes here, that population had grown to a peak of 132,445 in 1965.
Since then, those numbers have leveled off slightly above the 100,000 mark, showing a gradual decrease as the same industries that fueled the city’s original growth declined and faded into oblivion.
Behind the sheer numbers lies the story of how a city that once defined itself by its manufacturing base is now working to redefine itself as a city positioned to grow and thrive in the new econom
Saving America’s “hometown” cities
According to Beth Siegel, whose Boston-based Mt. Auburn Associates works with small to midsized cities on economic development strategies, South Bend is an example of what she terms a third-tier, or “hometown” city, which faces special challenges in the new economy.
“In many ways these cities face many more challenges, and their success is important to the economic future of the United States,” she wrote in an email. “Larger cities have a local philanthropic community and are also more tied into the national philanthropic community, so they have more resources available. They’re also more visible. While many in the foundation community have been to Detroit or New Orleans or Cleveland, few have ventured into the smaller cities and metropolitan areas.”
Finally, she says, the solutions that have been developed and promoted for larger metropolitan areas may not necessarily be applicable to smaller cities and metropolitan areas.
Siegel recommends finding a core group of small cities to participate in a learning network. The focus would be on identifying where the competitive advantages are for these cities, to explore if there are ways in which they can achieve some advantages through collaborative activities, and to help build their capacity to leverage resources and assets more effectively.
Ultimately, she says, the hope would be for “a large national foundation or group of foundations to recognize the threats to America’s hometown cities and redirect some philanthropic resources to address their economic challenges.”
Then: a working-class culture
|By 1866, South Bend was already a flourishing town that boasted busy water and rail traffic, several factories and at least two colleges, including the University of Notre Dame.|
By the late 1870s, according to Patrick J. Furlong, professor emeritus of history at Indiana University South Bend, the industrial base in South Bend had grown to such a scale that it was pulling people in from farms and small surrounding towns, all seeking factory jobs. It was even attracting immigrants from as far away as Europe.
“There were practically no skills needed for these factory jobs,” Furlong says. “That was part of the attraction. They were willing to work hard, and they could easily learn the specific skills they needed on the job. Education was essentially irrelevant.”
According to Mike Keen, professor of sociology at IU South Bend, “The skills needed during this era were primarily manufacturing skills: general unskilled labor for repetitive line work as well as more specialized labor such as machinists, tool and die makers, etc. Some broader skills were needed for work outside factories, including construction, electrical and plumbing.”
There would also have been a smattering of local professionals, such as lawyers, accountants, businesspersons, health care workers, secretaries with shorthand and typing skills, telephone switchboard operators, and a few teachers.
The result was that South Bend was largely a working-class town, with a relatively small group of more affluent and educated community leaders. The two groups largely interacted in their own separate social cultural spheres.
Now: increased expectations
|David Brinkruff, dean of the school of technology at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend|
By contrast, Keen says, today’s workforce is much more educated, with a high school diploma now the minimum requirement.
“One can find employment without it,” he says, “but it’s going to be the most basic manual labor such as some custodian services, unskilled labor for lawn care and landscaping, house and office cleaning in private and commercial settings. These are minimum-wage jobs that offer virtually no possibility of advancement.”
David Brinkruff, dean of the school of technology at Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, concurs.
“If you look at the economy, the jobs that could be done by an unskilled work force are no longer here,” Brinkruff says. “They have departed, either to another part of the country or out of the country and will never return. We must accept that fact.”
Brinkruff cites several reasons why today’s employees can no longer expect to get a job without already having the required skills.
“For one thing, it’s more of a buyer’s market,” Brinkruff says. “Employers can be choosier. They can afford the luxury of requiring an education before they’ll hire you, especially in those areas where there’s an abundant supply of workers.”
In addition, the jobs themselves have become more complex, meaning that the institutions and programs must be in place to train workers to perform those jobs.
That is where Ivy Tech will play an important role.
“Our goal is to satisfy the local economy with a skilled work force,” Brinkruff says.
“An associate’s degree gives you more depth than you would get in high school, so you’re more job-ready,” he says. “In addition, an associate’s program includes more requirements in science, math and English that will allow you to grow in your organization.”
Looking ahead: a research-based economy
The more sophisticated, complex job skills owe much to the growth of research and technology, which many experts say will form the basis of the new economy.
“I think we’re in a very good position to be competitive in the new economy,” says Kirk Reinbold, managing director of Advanced Diagnostics and Therapeutics at the University of Notre Dame. AD&T is an interdisciplinary state-of-the-art research initiative created to foster entrepreneurial relationships with companies and individuals working on health and environmental issues.
“Notre Dame research won’t be the only basis for the new economy,” Reinbold says. “There are a whole lot of other drivers for the new economic politics, including global influences and federal policy. But it will certainly play an important part here.”
“I don’t think that economic development is or should be a priority of the University,” he says. “However, the University could take advantage of the environment and the willingness of the community to help translate these technologies into new businesses.”
The University stands to gain from such efforts through an enhanced ability to attract world-class faculty. It would also attract top undergraduate and graduate students, and ultimately be able to retain some of the smartest students here with suitable jobs and opportunities within the region.
“If we can turn Notre Dame research into a brain gain, that is of tremendous benefit to the entire community,” Reinbold says.
In the meantime, connections need to be made between the research arising from universities and the investors who can move the research forward into commercialization.
“There are many steps between a discovery in the laboratory and a successful idea or product that can be sold,” says Arnie Phifer, external relations program director for NDnano and AD&T. “Each of those steps requires investment capital and a willingness to assume risk.”
The community can help by providing or attracting the financial and infrastructure resources to support new research and the spinoff companies arising from it. “It’s essentially the community investing in itself,” Phifer says.
Looking further ahead: next steps
In order to be successful, it is important to embrace an entrepreneurial mindset.
“I think you’re going to see smaller, higher-tech companies spring out of Notre Dame research,” Reinbold says. “You aren’t going to create a 500-employee business. Instead, there will be a number of companies with five to 10 employees earning higher salaries.
“If you want to start speaking a foreign language, start speaking Entrepreneurial,” he adds. “It’s the one language everyone will need.”
Other things South Bend will need to do to be competitive in the new economy:
• Think globally. “Manufacturers today must be able to compete in a global market,” Furlong says. “If your company’s leadership has trouble thinking outside the city limits, or outside the boundaries of the United States, you’re going to lose out.”
• Capitalize on the cluster effect. Brinkruff says it’s important to zero in on a technology that sets South Bend apart. “Other communities have an industry base where one person started a company and started producing devices. Related companies then clustered around it to take advantage of the expertise that’s centrally located there. Those areas then become hubs for that type of activity.”
• Grasp the future and stop dwelling in the past. If Keen had his way, no one would ever again mention the word Studebaker when talking about South Bend’s future. “I believe we are at a tipping point of real revitalization. We are at the intersection of a vibrant agricultural and tourist center of southwest Michigan, and the professional, educational, health care, manufacturing and information technology of northwest Indiana. If we can knit these two regions together in a vibrant and self-sustaining region, leading the nation in the development of newly emerging information and green economies, we can return to the prominence we once took for granted.”