Photo Source: Max Pixel
During a trip across country as a boy in our gold Pontiac Tempest station wagon, I remember stopping at a silver mining ghost town somewhere out West. The vacant buildings and empty streets looked like a dusty time capsule. I remember thinking, why did they just leave everything, and where did all the people go? The abandoned mining town that empties out when the silver vein ends acts a metaphor for the similar effects on towns today when major employers shutter factories that have sustained the town for generations. Factories leave towns for many reasons such as shipping the jobs offshore to reduce costs, tax breaks in new trade deals, losing to competition, automation, or changing markets (for instance, making a product such as a typewriter no longer needed). The town still stands, but the human cost of losing jobs means more than just lost wages. Alana Semuels notes in an article in The Atlantic titled “Ghost Towns of the 21st Century” the great emotional toll on the town of Bruceton, TN when the clothing manufacturer Henry I. Siegel laid off all 1,700 of its workers between 1995 and 2001. The town emptied out as people left looking for work. Subsequently, the once thriving downtown also emptied out, as supporting businesses like restaurants and retailers could no longer stay open. In 2016 in Brillion, Wisconsin, the Brillion Iron Works closed after 120 years, putting hundreds of workers out of a job and pulling the primary employer out of the town of 3,100 people (Post Crescent). Natasha Geiger, lifetime resident of Brillion adds in her blog on Odyssey, “It hit many hard in their hearts.” The story repeats itself over and over again across the country. In fact, America has lost about one third of its manufacturing jobs since the 1980s (CNN Money report).
Following the loss of manufacturing jobs, some workers moved into the retail sector, which tends to pay less than manufacturing, but none the less, offered steady employment. However, with the rise of eCommerce, brick and mortar retailers have been experiencing a decline in customers who are increasingly shopping online rather than visiting stores. In an article in the New York Times titled “In Towns Already Hit by Steel Mill Closings, a New Casualty: Retail Closings,” the authors focus on Johnstown, PA. Johnstown was once a thriving steel town that lost its factories in the 1990s, and now over the past sixteen years, the town has lost 19% of its retail jobs. The National Review reports in “American Retail’s Fast, Furious Decline,” that one in ten jobs in America is in retail, and last year, for the first time, Americans did more shopping online (51%) than in stores. Malls are closing all over the country impacting millions of employees. The thousands of shuttered malls are the ghost towns of today and similarly to the towns impacted by factory closings towns are struggling to adjust to the changing business landscape and help their people adapt and find new employment.
The leaders of some towns such as Johnstown, PA believe that revitalizing their downtowns will create more jobs. Knowing that people shop more online, the downtown needs to be catered more to experiences than things. The thinking goes that restaurants, spas, coffee shops and entertainment form the nucleus of vibrant town, and the town leaders believe that a vibrant town can attract new businesses to move in such a fulfillment centers and distribution warehouses. Recently, an article on Inc.com by Jessica Stillman called, “Why Small Town America Is Poised to Become the Next Silicon Valley,” suggests the strategy may have merit. Traditionally, Silicon Valley or other technology centers such as Boston and Seattle have drawn technology talent away from small towns, but the trend appears to be reversing. Due to the exorbitant housing costs and increasing congestion of the major tech centers standing in stark contrast to the open space, clean air, and affordable housing available in small towns coupled with the connectivity of the internet, companies and startups have begun to pop up in towns like Blacksburg Virginia and Champaign Urbana Illinois. Adding more than a vibrant main street, some towns have renovated old manufacturing centers and fitted them with high speed internet to create technology incubators to attract startups. In the small, upstate New York town of Geneva, a bitcoin mining operation called Coin Miner took advantage of the town’s technology incubator to start a mining operation and an online mining tools retail shop.
Major changes in employment such as the closing of a factory or the decline in retail jobs have devastating consequences for people and the towns they live in. America has endured significant losses in manufacturing in the past 40 years and is now enduring the loss of retail jobs in increasing numbers. Town leaders struggle to find new opportunities for their citizens and in some places, have worked to make their towns more attractive to new businesses by revitalizing their main streets and even setting up technology incubators. Due to the high cost of housing and congested environments of the great technology centers, some technology developers have begun to move out to the small towns to run their operations and live a higher quality of life. The relocation of tech companies may not completely solve the real problem of job loss in our changing economy, but they may bring opportunity and commerce back to places so significantly hit by job loss.