GM Closure Another Blow To Mansfield

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For much of the 20th century, the city of Mansfield was an industrial giant. But that has changed. Things began to unravel in the 1970s as manufacturing there began grinding to a halt. The latest blow to the area came early this year when the nearby General Motors plant shut down. Sam Hendren visited Mansfield and reports on a city in transition.

There was a time when Mansfield was a wealthy city; its economy buoyed by heavy manufacturing. That was in the 1960s. Mansfield Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Nestor says back then:

“Mansfield had the 3rd highest per capita income of any city in the United States between 25,000 and 50,000 in population.”

The reminders of that era remain. The dominant structure near Mansfield’s downtown is the old Westinghouse factory. It spreads over several city blocks. But it’s sagging, its metal sides rusting, windows are broken or empty. It symbolizes lost jobs and lost paychecks.

“Today we’re below the average per capita income for Ohio and Ohio is below the national per capita income,” says the Chambers Kevin Nestor.

In recent decades, companies like Westinghouse that had made Mansfield an industrial powerhouse began a slow exodus. It was a story that was playing out across the region. 40 years ago half of Mansfield’s jobs were in manufacturing; now less than a quarter of them are.

“So yes we have seen a decline and again that’s one of those changes that’s not affecting just us but we’ve been hard hit,” Nestor says.

Mansfield suffered its latest blow when it got word that General Motors was shutting down. The massive parts stamping plant had operated in the neighboring city of Ontario since the mid 1950s. Paul Williams, an electrician at the plant for 40 years, recalls the day that the closing was announced.

“They shut everything down. We all went over to a big staging area. There was a lot of disbelief looks and I don’t believe they actually believed what they heard,” Williams said.

In spite of pleas from Gov. Ted Strickland and Sen. Sherrod Brown, GM’s decision was final. The Ontario plant halted production in February, putting 600 people out of work. Now Paul Williams is one of only a hundred or so employees remaining. They’re only there to pack up the plant’s equipment and ship it to other GM facilities.

“It’s depressing when I go in there and I look at this building becoming a huge empty space. By June or July mostly everything that’s going to be out of there will be tore down and set off to the side ready to be shipped,” Williams says.

Some of the employees like Williams were old enough to retire from GM. Others had the option of taking buyouts that the company offered. Still others were able to transfer to other GM facilities. But the closure of the plant has had a trickle down effect on the local economy. Khyme Thomas felt the loss at her job.

“I used to work for a food restaurant out that way so that affects us too, if they’re closed a lot of other places end up closing too because we get a lot of our business from GM. But now, it’s like dead out there. Sad to say but it is. We feel it,” Thomas says.

The office of the Richland County Job and Family Services feels it, too. The county’s unemployment stands at 13.5 percent. And demand for services has been rising. Lori Bedson helps direct the Richland County Job and Family Services office. She says 20,000 people in the county now receive food stamps. That’s a 30 percent increase just in the past year.

“We have felt a strain,” Bedson says. “We’ve had to revamp or redesign the way we operate. As a result of I’m sure General Motors and the ripple effect that that’s had on the community with smaller businesses that were tied to General Motors.”

Local charities are also dealing with increased demand. Major Markus Jugenheimer heads the Mansfield Salvation Army. He says the resources of his organization have been strained as more and more families ask for assistance. For example Jugenheimer says Food Pantry assistance has increased 30 percent during each of the past two years.

“Through the Salvation Army food pantry program in Mansfield last year we served over 87,000 meals to families in need. We also provided 293 families assistance with their utility bills, and 88 families’ assistance with rent,” Jugenheimer says.

At the Richland County Job and Family Services Office, there’s a center that’s been helping about 150 people a day look for work. Jason McManes runs the OneStop Employment and Training Center where the unemployed have access to copy, scanner and fax machines as well as computer stations specially set up to help them find jobs.

“You can see it’s a typical computer station,” McManes says. “Each station has a phone, a phone book; each computer is loaded with resume maker software, basic Office, Word, Excel. They all have internet access. We have staff here on site to help write resumes and critique resumes. Everything here is at no cost to individuals as long as it’s employment or training related.” For now, area officials are hoping that they can find a buyer for the GM plant and that the site will return to manufacturing.