Automakers' bailout or not, Kokomo, Ind., fears end of era

Ever since Elwood Haynes revved his horseless carriage up to 7 mph on the Pumpkinvine Pike in 1894, this has been a car town. It calls itself "City of Firsts," site of the first American gas-powered car, the first carburetor, the first pneumatic tire, the first push-button car radio.

Two decades ago, local auto plants employed more than 20,000 workers, and Chrysler and the parts maker Delphi still account for 20% of all local jobs.

But now, as Washington argues whether to give automakers just enough money to limp into the new year, a growing number of people here feel that the car, which took Kokomo so far for so long, has turned into a dead end.

Dependent on two financially troubled employers, the city now seems as vulnerable to catastrophe as any hurricane-prone coastline.

Mayor Greg Goodnight says the city has a "contingency plan." He won't go into detail — "it's an internal document" — but says it would respond to a plant closing almost as if it were a natural disaster.

"Our entire community is tied to this industry," says Edward Vasicek, a minister who writes an opinion column in the local newspaper. "If those plants close, you might as well plow everything over and return to farmland. What if even one of them fails? Could we survive?"

No one can say. There's a sense here the auto industry's fate will not be resolved cleanly or quickly — that Kokomo will twist in the wind well into next year. And even if the government does give Detroit more money, the probable result will be a shrunken industry carrying fewer local jobs.

Kokomo is a metro area of about 100,000 on the Plains 45 miles north of Indianapolis. Its cityscape is marked by the long, low profiles of sprawling factory complexes that employ more than 8,000 autoworkers — one-tenth of the state's total — and support a range of suppliers and other businesses.

During the past decade the city has lost jobs at a rate of 1,000 a year, says Jason VanAlstine, who teaches economics at the Indiana University campus here. Unemployment hovers from 7% to 9%, compared with the state's overall rate of 6.4%.

Kokomo is one of many such embattled car towns in the Midwest. From Chrysler's vast minivan-and-truck complex in Fenton, Mo., to General Motors' plant alongside I-80 in Lordstown, Ohio, the decline of a unionized industry that helped create the American middle class threatens a way of life.

"These towns are scared," says Kim Hill of the Center for Automotive Research, an industry think tank. "There's a desire to diversify, but there's also the attitude that we've always been an automotive community. That's what we know."

A motor city

Elwood Haynes was a schoolteacher turned inventor who dubbed his gas-powered vehicle "The Pioneer." He was one himself, part of a group of visionaries, tinkerers, lab rats and oddballs who gathered in places such as Detroit and Kokomo to found one of the world's greatest industries.

Whether his was really the first U.S. car remains in question — there are equally compelling claims for the Duryea brothers of Springfield, Mass. But after he joined with two local mechanics to found the Haynes-Apperson Automobile Co. in 1898, Kokomo's industrial fate was sealed.

Haynes-Apperson was one of about 2,000 U.S. auto companies, but it closed in 1925, unable to match the production or marketing techniques of men such as Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler. A few years later, Chrysler built a big assembly line on the site of Haynes' factory.

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