Sunday, August 05, 2001

City seeks to rebuild

Mosler latest blue-collar casualty

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — A day after learning that Mosler Inc., once America's premier safe manufacturer, was closing and wiping out 300 area jobs, Hamilton officials offered two astute reactions:

        It's clear this Butler County city's traditional blue-collar economy almost has vanished.

        And because of that, leaders must work even harder to find the service-style companies that can replace the smokestack industries abandoning Hamilton.

        “What is happening here is a microcosm of what is happening to industrial cities all across the country,” Butler County Commissioner Chuck Furmon said.

        In a brief statement Friday, company officials said an overwhelming debt burden hindered Mosler's financial flexibility. The result: Operations were halted and assets will be liquidated.

   The city appeared on the map in 1791 as Fort Hamilton, a frontier outpost on the east bank of the Great Miami River. The fort was named after Alexander Hamilton, the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury. The first settlers — most of them veterans of the Revolutionary War and land speculators — were attracted by the navigable Great Miami River.
   When Ohio was admitted as a state in 1803, Hamilton was designated the county seat of the newly-created Butler County. Because of its river location, Hamilton's first industries, textile and paper, were related directly to water.
Census 2000 snapshot:
   • 2000 population: 60,690
   • 1990 population: 61,436
   • White residents: 88 percent
   • African-American residents: 7.5 percent
   • Hispanic: 2.6 percent
   • Asian-American: 0.4 percent
   • Native American: 0.3 percent
   • Others: 1.2 percent
   • Population under 18: 15,645

        Al Rabasca, the company's senior vice president of human resources, initially said Mosler would file Monday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but he later amended that to say the bankruptcy filing is imminent.

        Whatever legal course is taken by the company, nothing will change Hamilton's economic shift, leaders say.

        For more than 150 years, the city along the Great Miami River was a hub of manufacturing. Brick factories, many of them humming 24 hours a day, belched smoke as workers made everything from safes and steam pumps to paper and agricultural machines.

        In Hamilton's heyday, about 160 industries made 250 products. Companies would relocate from faraway places — and even as close as Cincinnati — to set up shop in Hamilton, which offered excellent rail and water transportation.

        Proud of the city's economic prowess, Hamilton leaders at the turn of the 20th century declared it the “greatest industrial city of its size in the world.”

        But beyond the bravado, Hamilton never learned to adjust to a changing marketplace.

        Its blue-collar commerce peaked at the end of the Korean War. In the mid 1950s, Hamilton boasted 22,000 factory jobs. By 1962 it had lost about 25 percent of them.

        Since then, there's been a steady stream of companies leaving town, leaving behind unemployed workers and shuttered factories.

        “The real end of the blue-collar chapter (of Hamilton) was in 1996 when Mosler ended its manufacturing. It's been the headquarters since — with no manufacturing,” James Blount, a Butler County historian, said Saturday.

        Butler County officials say the city can get past its fraying blue collar. But success will come only if it pursues new, high-tech industries and other jobs that are not affected as greatly by global competition and volatile manufacturing expenses.

        “It's not too late,” said Richard Holzberger, former Hamilton City Council member and Butler County sheriff.

        “If we can get 15 to 20 new small businesses to locate here, that's a good start. But we have to start thinking different kinds of businesses — offices and high-tech. I look for Hamilton maybe to become a fiber-optic community.”

        Hamilton Councilman Thomas Nye agreed. “A lot of what is happening in Hamilton is happening in the industrial Midwest. Hamilton can put on a new face. Norwood is a good example of that.”

Norwood as a model
        In 1987, Norwood's General Motors automobile assembly plant closed. GM's decision to mothball the outdated Camaro plant left 4,300 people — about 35 percent of the city's earnings tax base — without jobs. The city economy had relied on the the 3 million-square-foot plant for 64 years.

        Once the shock of the plant's closing subsided, Norwood officials refocused the city's economy.

        What emerged was a new Norwood. The emphasis on manufacturing was replaced with a call for mixed-use developments.

        Today, Norwood is thriving with tax revenues generated by new developments and the arrival of more affluent residents.

        Since the GM plant closed, more than 650,000 square feet of office space has been added in the city and even more is on the horizon. The Rookwood Pavilion and Rookwood Commons shopping and office complexes have sprouted, and housing stock has jumped in value.

        About 4,500 new jobs have been created. Annual earnings tax revenues are higher today than when GM closed. The city saw more than $200 million in business reinvestment in the 10 years following the closing.

New road will help
        Hamilton and Butler County officials insist Hamilton can reinvent itself, too.

        One thing in its favor, Mr. Holzberger said, is new Michael A. Fox Highway. Designated as Ohio 129, the 11-mile highway connects Interstate 75 with Hamilton.

        The 2-year-old freeway makes Hamilton more accessible to commuters and companies.

        Officials point to other important assets:

        • Hamilton is the seat of Butler County government. That means a continued presence for lawyers, accountants and others who do business with officials in the fast-growing county.

        • Hamilton has a satellite campus of Miami University.

        • The city has launched an aggressive campaign to raze old industrial sites. The goal: make the abandoned locations attractive to new enterprises.


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