Wakeup call or siren's song for Galesburg?

By Mike Kroll


As we sit here today the prognosis for Galesburg is bleak. We have already lost thousands of middle-class jobs, the city's population is both in decline and in the midst of a demographic remix while people are literally fleeing the rural areas surrounding Galesburg and we are squandering precious time and scant resources as we fail to recognize what is happening. This is not a new problem. It has been decades in the making – it began well before the closing of Maytag and Butler. If things continue as they are Galesburg will be a meager shadow of what it is today in just a few years as we face an accelerating crisis while our current community leaders fiddle obliviously as this community whithers and dies.

No one likes to hear bad news and that is especially true here where we prefer to be mislead by promises that never come true and dismiss critics as naysayers without the necessary positive outlook. For many of us there seems to be an unquenchable resolute belief that things will magically turn around if we refuse to acknowledge all evidence to the contrary and simply wait for someone to announce good news.

This attitude coupled with local leaders who cannot seem to lead, possess extremely myopic vision and are counting on outsiders to rescue us akin to the just-in-time arrival of the cavalry in movie westerns is contributing to the decline of our town. As a community we need to take stock of our real situation, realistically assess our strengths and weaknesses, and develop a plan to revitalize the Galesburg area by recognizing the changing economic realities that have made the life we know obsolete.

The downfall of Galesburg, and hundreds of other rural communities similar to us, is due to changing economics and our inability or unwillingness to reinvent ourselves to accommodate changes we cannot stop and continuing to ignore them is suicidal.

At its heart Galesburg has always been a blue-collar working class community rooted in a dependence upon agriculture and low-skilled manufacturing and assembly employment for our continued existence. For the initial 100 years or so of our existence Galesburg mirrored much of this country in its demographic and economic stratification. A small number of key residents controlled the wealth, resources and politics while the vast majority of working-class families struggled mightily but managed to eke out an existence.

In those days farming was very different than it is today. Small family farms predominated where raising livestock was integrated with crops of corn, soybeans and vegetables into a very labor intensive and risky endeavor. Most family farms were never more than a bad season away from ruin and hundreds or thousands of such farms were dependent upon small cities like Galesburg to sell their crops and livestock and trade for goods and services.

The smaller merchants and business owners composed a small middle-class while larger merchants, bankers, factory owners and managers, and professionals made up the town's upper and ruling class. In sociological terms this was a highly stratified population not unlike that found across Europe. Then as now America's poor were far better off than the poor in third-world countries but they were just as exploited and the desire to improve one's status made the industrial revolution possible. Until the end of World War II it was possible to pull oneself out of poverty and into the working-class by having the will and energy to toil for long hours and very limited pay at mind-numbing factory tasks across this country.

That all began changing following World War II but most of us failed to recognize that fact and most of us in Galesburg still haven't begun to understand how our economy has changed over the last 50+ years. The close of the war drastically changed economic and social stratification in  America but, more importantly, in Europe and Japan as well. In the rebuilding years following that war there was a significant expansion in the middle-class, thanks in large part to the GI Bill but even more so to an American economy that redefined itself and its workforce during the war. It was during World War II that the traditional roles of women and minorities in this country changed forever and after the war millions of returning GIs discovered an economy unprepared to reabsorb them. The true reason for the GI Bill wasn't just to thank our veterans for their valiant service but to slow their push back into the American workforce by diverting tens of thousands of them to college and vocational schools.

The GI Bill introduced the idea that education could be a realistic goal of all Americans, not just the wealthy and privileged. Before that war only a small portion of Americans went to college and high school graduation rates were far worse than those we lament today. It was not only possible to find a reasonable job without a high school diploma it was the norm. The working class were only marginally better off than their cousins the poor but they at least were on a path that promised a better life for their kids.

Following the war factory jobs flourished across this country but especially here in the Midwest. Sure big cities like Chicago, St. Louis and Detroit claimed most of these jobs but hundreds of smaller cities and towns across the midsection of this country also saw the arrival or expansion of local manufacturing and assembly operations. Galesburg was a good, if unlikely, example.

This town began on a base of agriculture due to the fertile soil beneath our feet and because of geography would probably have never been much more without the arrival of the railroads. Most industrial towns sit upon major rivers that provide much needed transport, water and sewer capacity that Galesburg lacked. But the presence of railroads helped change that and made it possible for Galesburg to host a wide assortment of manufacturing and assembly plants that had modest water needs. These plants employed thousands of workers most of whom were poorly educated and low-skilled but hard-working and industrious.

By most accounts Galesburg's most prosperous and successful times were the years immediately following World War II through the mid-1960s. The city's population grew and greater numbers of our citizens transitioned into the middle-class as factory salaries rose. More and more Galesburg families sent their children off to college and high school graduation was finally seen as an important if not necessary goal for most children. The assumption was that the factories would continue to provide a comfortable living for the less educated but industrious who could still live comfortably in Galesburg and raise their own family.

For too many of us here in Galesburg life's goals, ambition and vision was frozen in the world of the early 1960's even as world, national and regional economics began changing in the late 1960's. That change only accelerated during the 1970's and 1980's until by the turn of the 1990's the comfortable economic world that most in Galesburg knew no longer existed. But for some inexplicable reason no one here in Galesburg seemed to see this change happening or they did see it and refused to recognize its implications for this community. Meanwhile those Galesburg children whose parents so proudly sent off to college left never to return because they could see what the rest of us refused to see that there was no future for them in Galesburg.

An economy based on low-skilled manufacturing and assembly jobs had a foundation of sand that collapsed as it became possible to ship those jobs off to third-world or developing countries teeming with available and industrious low-skilled labor willing to work for pennies on the American dollar because in their case that still represented a economic step up from the poverty they had always known. The economic advantage follows the resources and in labor-intensive manufacturing it was just a matter of time before those jobs left Galesburg never to return.

We can blame the management of OMC or Maytag or Butler as all of those plants were still profitable when they closed in Galesburg but the fact is they could be much, much more profitable with the extremely lower labor costs and absence of regulations that characterize the developing world. Things aren't great in these new overseas plants. The lack of regulations and oversight has lead to many more worker injuries as well as highly publicized quality and product safety difficulties but economics remain viable.

Circumstances have changed but our local expectations have not. Low-skilled manufacturing and assembly jobs are gone for good from Galesburg never to return. We need to cease wasting our time and resources attempting to lure such jobs back or trying to replace them with smaller numbers of equally dead-end warehousing jobs in our so-called Logistics Park. Even if our economic development officials were wildly successful beyond their own optimistic promises and bring in 200-300 total jobs paying an average of ten dollars per hour this doesn't begin to replace the jobs lost. And realistically they will be fortunate to create 100 real jobs in this boon-dongle project. It is nothing more than a political gimmick or gesture designed to placate irritated residents by showing that local officials are doing something however ineffective. The simple fact is few of our local political and economic development officials have any clue how to save Galesburg but are so entrenched in the ways of the past that they cannot begin to entertain new approaches.

Galesburg is akin to a ship at sea in the midst of a huge storm losing power and essentially rudderless.

We are all familiar with the current political talk about a federal gas tax holiday being proposed by presidential candidates John McCain and Hillary Clinton and opposed by Barack Obama for being the counterproductive political gesture it is. Well Galesburg's China Initiative is in much the same league. We send our mayor and GREDA officials off on costly junkets to China putatively to solicit Chinese investment here in Galesburg. Our leaders believe that because of the presence of the BNSF that Chinese firms will see wisdom in locating warehousing and assembly operations here in Galesburg thereby creating local low-skill jobs. Why would we think this?

China's two economic advantages are an ample supply of malleable, low-cost, low-skilled labor and virtually no regulations makes it so very profitable to manufacture or assemble goods there that American firms are relocating but we expect the Chinese to invest in Galesburg? This is either crazy or economically ignorant or both. We are continuing to squander time and resources on a lost cause because we lack the vision and willingness to pursue a different course.

We the people of Galesburg can no longer wait for someone to ride in to rescue us from ourselves. If this community to to continue to survive we must reclaim responsibility for our own future. We must candidly recognize the changing economy and honestly assess our community strengths and weaknesses. And most importantly we must abandon the failed strategies of our past.

America will not be able to continue exporting manufacturing jobs overseas but neither can we reclaim them with old-style operations. The future of American manufacturing is in high-technology manufacturing plants that employ small numbers of highly skilled employees to produce high-quality goods at prices that are competitive with lower quality foreign-made products. We must reclaim our role as the producer of top quality products at realistic prices or of new products that cannot be made elsewhere.

Unfortunately, our overseas competitors have recognized this changing economic reality sooner than we and are already moving toward creation of exactly such high technology plants alongside those low-tech plants they lured away from us. China and India are devoting much more attention to the importance of education and retaining these highly trained youth that we here in America. As the American middle-class has been decreasing so too has college enrollments as the cost of an American higher education has skyrocketed.

The brain drain that has traditionally characterized Galesburg and towns like us all over this country has become a crisis of our continued existence. Our future is tied to a better educated workforce and that means not only more high school graduates but many more of our children that leave Galesburg for college must be lured back. We need to rebuild our local economy around a diversified and educated workforce that provides both service sector and manufacturing jobs.