COMMUNITY PLANNER QUEST – SEARCHING FOR THE 21ST CENTURY COMPANY TOWN

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s major employers constructed new towns as a means to attract and house their needed and expanding workforce. Pullman (Chicago), Austin (Minnesota), MacDonald (Ohio), Gary (Indiana), Newton (Iowa) and Kohler (Wisconsin) are but a few Midwest towns created to house an influx of workers needed to support the growing lumber, steel making, mining and manufacturing businesses.

Somewhat paternalistic, these employers often built for the use and enjoyment of the workers and their family – schools, libraries, recreation facilities and other public and even religious buildings.  They also provided for daily commercial needs often times running the retail stores themselves using the company payroll script as the only acceptable currency.

Not surprisingly these companies had significant control of the daily working and nonworking time of every employee and their family members.  They exercised a degree of control over where and how people lived exerted by the fear of personal job loss.Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town

Roots of Steel – Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town” is a story of Dundalk, Maryland, a company town developed by Pennsylvania Steel Company about 1890 (subsequently sold to Bethlehem and then ArcelorMittal), to supply workers for the Sparrows Point steel mill.  Deborah Rudacille, chronicles the history of Dundalk and its residents from a successful prosperous “Sparrows Point Mill Town” through its economic demise brought about, in part by the economic globalization of steel making in the 1970’s and global steel making consolidation in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

This is important reading for community planners and economic developers of today.  While illustrating the role of the company, unions and globalization upon the rise to prosperity and subsequent path of community disinvestment, Rudacille, describes the complex community ethnic, racial, and economic class relationships as well as the health and safety impact of the rigorous and sometimes dangerous business of making steel.  She describes the role of the business, state and federal government agencies and unionization beginning with the 1930’s great depression era though desperate measures of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s to mitigate the impact of globalization of steel making and the demise of American steel making dominance.

Roots of Steel” teaches community planners and economic developers several important facts about community economic development:

1.         Community prosperity is inexorably linked with jobs – their number and wage scales – loss of jobs and lessened wage rates undermine growth and sustainability of local economies.

2          Jobs and the type of jobs can draw together or push apart workers grouped together by ethnicity, race or economic class.

3          Business prosperity transported throughout the community in the form of job advancement and wage improvement breeds sustainable community civic and social vitality and aids human relationship harmony.

4.         The notion of a company provided intergenerational job birthright – my granddad and my dad worked here therefore the company will provide me a lifetime “good” job no longer exists.

5.         In one generation, an industrial economy that enabled people without much formal education to create stable families and communities can be transformed into a technological driven global economy relying on better trained and educated workers – leaving the legacy that a high school education will likely no longer qualify for well paying jobs necessary to fulfill the American dream of raising a family in an economic sustainable, vibrant civic and socially progressive community.

Communities such as Dundalk face enormous challenges to regain their economic sustainability and must rely on reinventing the physical, social and civic structures of the community through education – retooling businesses and workforce retraining hopefully repopulating the community with new job opportunities.

In today’s “planner speak” – smart growth, traditional town planning, communitywide walkability, economic sustainability, place making – we seek many of the same goals of these early company towns, principles first fostered by Ebenezer Howard founder of the Garden Cities Movement to manufacture communities attractive to new job location as well as “places” where people want to live, “key” elements being:

  • Shortened journey to work trips.
  • Balanced workforce with available jobs.
  • Access to recreational and natural green spaces.
  • Community civic and social engagement among all residents.
  • Educational and religious opportunities.
  • Wage and income growth opportunities.
  • Long term economic stability and growth.

Simply stated, we community planners and economic developers seek to create a more perfect physical, civic and social community – a company town “so to speak” – one that attracts the “creative class” popularized by Richard Florida.

The only difference in what we do today compared to company town planners of history, is company town planners back then had jobs that would attract people to the community while community planners and economic developers today must focus both on creating the “company jobs” as well as the “company town”.

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