Factory Town Broods Over Economic Slowdown

In places like Skooter's Family Restaurant, amid the smell of cigarette smoke and bottomless cups of coffee, thoughts of an economic slowdown churn like an empty stomach.

Factory workers belly up to the counter for casual conversation, but in the back of many minds, from this diner to kitchen tables to gas pumps and grocery store aisles across the Midwest, there's concern. Concern that a job may be gone tomorrow. Concern that the good times may be winding down.

Just up the road from Skooter's, good-paying factory jobs are being cut at Cummins Inc. and ArvinMeritor Inc. The layoffs haven't put much strain on the community yet, but it's enough to slow home sales, make smokeshop customers buy a handful of cigars instead of a box, push couples to forgo their Friday night dinners out.

"Everybody's worried," said Dave Skinner, who's worked on engine blocks at Cummins for 40 years. "People that've been on the job for 30 years are worried."

And with good reason. After years of booming economic times, sales of automobiles and other durable goods are falling, and the parts makers in the so-called Rust Belt region of the Midwest are seeing business drop.

Durable Goods Purchases First to Go

When the economy hits a bump, manufacturing states are the first to get bounced. When budgets get tight, consumers start to pass up the durable goods that are this region's bread and butter.

"You don't have to buy a new refrigerator, you don't have to buy a new washing machine, you don't have to buy a new car," said Morton Marcus, an economist at Indiana University. "You can postpone these things."

Over the past five months, layoff announcements at manufacturing plants have popped up across Indiana and surrounding states: Dana Corp. cut about 1,000 jobs in Fort Wayne. Similar numbers were lost at Outboard Marine Corp. in Waukegan, Ill., and at different factories in Cadillac, Mich. In Ohio, more than 20,000 workers have been laid off since Jan. 1, 2000.

Marcus contends that one of the key elements to the current economic slowdown, particularly in the Midwest, is the skyrocketing natural gas bills people are facing during a bitterly cold winter.

"That's the thing that's really eating it up for consumers here in the Midwest," he said. "You've got to pay that gas bill before you can think about taking on new payments for a car."

In Columbus, fuel costs in general, coupled with the threat of layoffs, have forced Carol Petro's family to tighten its belt. As she rolled a rattling shopping cart from a LoBill grocery store to her car, Petro explained that her husband has been with Cummins for nearly 28 years. He needs 30 years service to retire with company benefits.

"And he's worried about not making it," she said.

The tan plastic grocery bags she loaded into her trunk held staples: potatoes, pasta, tomato sauce. Absent are the cookies, candy and other assorted junk food. "Treats," she calls them. To be cautious the family has cut back on groceries and dinners out, and they try to drive less to save money on gas.

"It's real scary," Petro said. "It's real scary when you don't know what's going to happen."

When Cummins Sneezes, Columbus Catches Cold

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