How’s It Going, America?

You won’t find Toledo on Starbucks’ map of America. That’s a bad sign. That means that here in Ohio, nobody has a few dollars to spare for a cup of coffee. Warehouses in the city stand empty, vacant lots abound and entire city blocks have been abandoned. Molten glass in countless forms used to flow in this industrial town. Since the end of the 19th century, Toledo has been America’s steaming city of glass; but since the decline of the automobile industry, it, too, has lost its importance.

In the midst of all the sadness, as if it fell to earth from outer space, stands a futuristic museum complex. It seems to want to call out that here optimists still believe in the future; but among this collection of architectural astral objects there’s only silence. A glass pavilion was added three years ago, a sensational high-tech miracle in the form of a sushi tray. Toledo, the sponsor seemed boldly to proclaim, is still the address for the latest in glass.

In 2009, Toledo is going to show the world. Steve Weathers, 49, with his perfectly styled mane of silver hair, can scarcely catch his breath as he rattles off the list of projects that will again make Toledo into a boom town. “Solar Valley” is being created here: green energy. Thin-film modules with big chances for economic success. Weathers, manager of the Regional Growth Partnership (RGP), personifies the gold rush atmosphere in Toledo like no one else. A former investment banker and amateur surfer, Weathers came to the “rust belt” from San Diego three years ago to seek his fortune as a funds manager for the Toledo-based RGP. “We haven’t made money during the crisis,” he readily admits, “but we did avoid losing money,” he says triumphantly, as though he still belonged to his group of California friends that called him crazy three years ago.

Drive less than two hours westward from Toledo and you find yourself already in America’s endless Midwest. On Interstate 80, near Elkhart, Indiana, you find another memorable museum: The RV/Mobile Home Museum, a $9 million building financed by a group of successful entrepreneurs.

The gigantic parking lot in front of the building is empty. Jim and John, two elderly gentlemen wearing polo shirts who volunteer to man the ticket office, look for ways to kill time. They, like 20 percent of the population here, recently lost their jobs, because in the midst of the crisis, nobody needs a mobile home that gobbles up fuel like a NASA launch vehicle. “We call ourselves trailer trash,” Jim Wehrle smirks. His partner, John, agrees with him, saying, “We crashed just like the space shuttle did.”

At first glance, Elkhart is a pulsating hub, amply supplied with railroad tracks and highways to facilitate the transport of raw materials back and forth. Completely different from Toledo, everyone here shared in the pie over the last 30 years, because the pie continually kept growing. What American suburbanites thought of as the ultimate expression of freedom on wheels, recreational vehicles, or RVs, were assembled here by the thousands. The RV quickly became America’s most beloved status symbol.

The “Hall of Fame” at the Mobile Home Museum was just opening last summer when Elkhart manufacturers began closing up shop due to skyrocketing fuel prices. Eight months later, the city of 52,000 is no longer known for fun on wheels; it’s now famous for having the largest percentage of unemployed workers in the nation. Common laborers used to be able to buy a house here; now they line up for warm meals at soup kitchens. Television audiences were shocked when they saw reports from Elkhart last March, where 1,600 families stood outside in freezing weather just to get donated groceries.

Ohio and Indiana: Both are swing states; they may vote Democratic today and Republican tomorrow. Everyone worried about how Obama will be able to get his reform program going points to that fact. That Toledo, of all places, is planning a comeback with a smart policy of bringing in green, high-tech industries, is a huge surprise. Here is where Obama is greeted as the long-awaited catalyst who will give the ambitious region the right starting boost toward realizing their 21st century vision.

In Elkhart, on the other hand, they see change as threatening. Until now, everything was going fine, they say, as they scratch their heads. This is where America lived, the America ex-President George W. Bush stood for: pedal to the metal and straight ahead, forget about where we’ll get the gasoline and the money to pay for it. The fact that they seem to have missed a few critical turns in the mobile home capital has now become painfully clear.

“It hit us really hard,” Mayor David Moore says gravely. “Obama promised us money, but I don’t know when we’ll get it.” Moore gestures with his notebook full of projects that could save thousands of Elkhart’s citizens from financial ruin by giving them jobs paid for with federal funds. There’s the viaduct over the railway lines in the downtown area, there’s new street and sewer system repairs, as well as a new water tower, all of them “shovel ready” projects as Obama requires. Funding from stimulus packages, Washington has made clear, will be forthcoming only for those infrastructure projects that will create many jobs.

“He’s got them,” says Moore, a former contractor and retired road builder. He makes no secret of the fact that he’s counting the hours until the federal money shows up in Elkhart. Fourteen of 20 businesses in and around Elkhart have already closed their doors. The rough-hewn Moore raced to Washington, just days after Obama took office, carrying a wish list of projects necessary to Elkhart, with a price tag of $92 million. So far, he has been promised a total of $8.5 million, but he has yet to actually see the money.

Each day, Moore telephones the Washington lobbyist he hired with the last $20,000 in his budget at the beginning of the crisis. According to Moore, the man is worth every cent he earns, because he keeps Moore informed day by day as to the fine print in the stimulus package, information Moore shrewdly uses to put diplomatic pressure on the governor of Indiana, a Republican. The governor is sympathetic, of course, but he would rather have control of the federal funds and the ability to disburse them as he, himself, sees fit, than allow his mayors to do so.

“Sure, Obama promised us the money, but there are a lot of strings attached,” he hastily adds, as if he wants to reflect on how to finish his sentence. “I’m disappointed already. I assumed the barriers would have been removed by now, but I have to play by the rules,” he says as he anxiously wrings his hands. He finds it difficult to accept the rules, the government bureaucracy and a governor concerned about his own validity at a time when his people are nearly reduced to begging for handouts.

A few hundred meters from Moore’s dignified city hall, Donny Gaut says he’s been used to waiting for a long time now. He and Pete Swathwood, both 58, and about a hundred other men and women have just finished saying grace in the cafeteria of the local ecumenical mission house and have started eating their lunch. “Obama gave us false hopes,” says Donny. But then he shrugs his shoulders and says, “Truth be told, that’s history.”

On February 9th, the president actually chose Elkhart for one of his first visits after his inauguration. He talked about his economic stimulus package, using the suffering mobile home industry workers as a good example of what he was talking about, and how billions in government aid would help such stricken communities.

Not much has changed since that day, and Donny and Pete would now rather believe in Jesus than in Obama. Pete is a bit better off since he received an extension of his unemployment benefits, $350 a week. He now has another 20 weeks of eligibility and can apply for one additional extension, but then the party’s over. “You’ve got to go into survival mode,” Donny advises him. “Quit spending.”

The first 100 days of Obama’s term haven’t been able to relieve the economic worries of Elkhart’s unemployed. But they will gradually notice that Washington is sending them assistance in small, but meaningful packages. Mobile home builders will be hired to build Elkhart’s railway overpass. The municipal health center will be able to hire two more dentists and a few more nurses. Police personnel and teachers will know that money from Washington kept them from being laid off. Does it bother them that the federal government is so closely involved in their personal lives? “I didn’t vote for Obama,” Pete Swathwood, a life-long Republican admits, “but the fact that he came here to Elkhart gave me confidence. I believe he does care about us citizens, and that’s a good feeling.”

Dorinda Heiden-Guss, president of the Elkhart region Chamber of Commerce, is buoyant. That goes along with the job. Like her colleague, Steve Weathers, in Toledo, she also expects great things from the investment in her town. She, too, is ready with a long list of vacant businesses that any investor can get for practically nothing. And like Weathers, she can also offer thousands of willing job seekers. If you ask the bubbly marketer what it is that makes her region so attractive, she’ll tell you, “Teamwork. We’re number one in that category.” Then she goes on to explain in detail how the stimulus dollars will benefit the industrious citizens of Elkhart. When reminded that it will all take more time, she suddenly says, “Yes, I don’t know what’s next either.”

“Crisis? What crisis?” Jim Bufort asks somewhat ironically. Jim Bufort has experienced nothing but decline over the past 30 years. In rapid succession, the 55-year-old lists his failures and his misfortunes. First he worked for Ford supplier in the 1970s, then for a glass company that supplied Chrysler, and then for a machine shop – they all went broke. He trained to become an air conditioning technician, but nobody would hire him. “I lost my last job two years before I was eligible to retire.” Bufort shakes his head. “I’m just not interested in learning a new trade, but what other choice do I have?”

When Jim learned that he was eligible for a retraining program, he registered for a 40-hour course at Owens Community College, a local trade school, to learn how to make solar modules. He immediately got a job in one of the many solar start-up companies in Toledo and has been employed full-time for over two months now. And, because there’s a future in it, Bufort has since registered at the community college to train as a full-fledged solar technician. Despite the fact that he has to attend night school after working hours, he is taking courses that Joe Peschl, Jim’s advisor, says are what he needs.

“We’ll soon need to hire several hundred more workers, because we want to reach full production strength by the end of the year,” says a buoyant Deng Xunming. He and his wife, Xu Liwei, came to the U.S. from China, and in 2002, founded the company they call “Xunlight”, which manufactures solar cells on flexible rubber mats. Engineers work on Deng’s production line in the still half-empty production hall, while Deng keeps a friendly eye on the vacuum unit that he doesn’t want photographed, because it has the key to all the secrets he developed over the past 20 years that are expected to make his product competitively inexpensive.

Xunming employs 87 workers and already has a file full of letters from interested parties; the prospects seem “good, very good,” because there is a great deal of interest from both Chinese and U.S. markets. In neighboring Wood County, a taciturn Will Mitchell and a more open Gary Faykosh rub their hands in anticipation when they consider the future. Entry to their factory, a former Philips television operation, is strictly forbidden. That’s how secret everything being developed inside is considered. What’s under development is a silicon-free, thin-film solar cell, the wave of the future, made possible by Faykosh’s know-how acquired through his experience in glass technology. They expect to hire 3,400 workers within a year. The two entrepreneurs are convinced the investments in their company and the change in tax regulations, all thanks to the new president, will make them successful.

As with most of the start-up companies, four out of six of the founders of Willard & Kelsey come from Toledo, itself. The two leading partners in Pilkington, a 170-year old company headquartered in Toledo, with worldwide operations, confirm there’s a regular solar industry brotherhood here. In Toledo’s only glass skyscrapers, all the projects concerning heat-conductive glass, new “smart” optic fibers, and revolutionary glass oxides come together.

“The founders of FirstSolar, Xunlight, SolarFields, Willard & Kelsey – all of us worked at sometime in the glass industry,” says Stephen Weidner, with a smile, as if it’s some sort of recently discovered secret club. “What’s being developed here, the nucleus of photovoltaic know-how, didn’t just happen overnight,” Weidner says. It’s apparent that he’s proud of the fact that they did it all themselves, without depending on outsiders.

“Even if there had been a different president, we would have done everything exactly the same,” says William Mitchell, a former contractor who dabbled in constructing thermal units in his spare time and experimented with investments in the solar industry. The fact that he has been founding father of Willard & Kelsey for 14 months has less to do with Washington, and more to do with global market opportunities. “I’m just an entrepreneur who wants to earn decent money selling a good product,” he says. “Obama’s stimulus package will loosen up credit markets and get cash flowing again, and that helps us, naturally.” His partner, fourth-generation glass maker Gary Faykosh adds, “But we’re not dependent on it.” Not only Toledo’s businessmen think it’s wonderful to have a president who understands the advantages offered by renewable energy; even embattled businessmen like Jim Bufort are relieved. “Obama is making it possible for Toledo to have faith in the future again, and that’s just great,” he says with a laugh. Because it wasn’t very long ago that Jim thought he would never be able to say that again.

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1 Comment

  1. just think if we americans can get our economy rolling again we can double the size of our industrial military complex.

    that will allow us to invade even more third world countries. hope they have oil like the iraqis.

    america has been going through a decline of wealth for over 40 years but few understand that and our politicans wont tell americans that as they want reelected. ie the wages and benefits are good very good if you can get a lobbyists job after leaving political office.

    how few in the world understand american politics.

    germany is no exception.

    surely germany of all people can understand the price of imperialism. few americans do.

    america is becoming a country of have mores and have nots.

    visit our small towns and ghettos in the big cities then you will understand.

    go someplace beside disney land when you visit america to see the real america in decline.

    the fruits of karma are alive and well in america.

    we killed one million vietnamese and did not bat an eye. how many iraqis will die and be displaced due to our illegal invasion and the spineless europe stood by and watched.

    you know in your hearts that bush jr and our congress should be put in front of an international court for war crimes.

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