Indiana city concerned about loss of 700 jobs

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Customers are milling about Rex Frederick's used bookstore.

It's been about two weeks since Frederick and his fiancee, Renee Platt, opened Turn the Page. Judging from the half-dozen or so people browsing the shelves, it was time.

Or, maybe timing could have been better.

The downtown Huntington bookstore opened a little more than a week after an announcement that the city of 17,000 people in northeast Indiana will lose 700 jobs to Mexico. While Frederick is confident something else will come along to replace those jobs, he said it's a little worrisome.

"That's the kind of news you don't want to hear right away," he said last week from behind the store's counter. "You are concerned with the local economy."

Fewer books bought, fewer heads styled, fewer restaurant meals eaten. That's the concern among some Huntington residents since United Technologies Corp. announced last month it will cut the jobs within the next two years. Another 1,400 people the company employs at Carrier in Indianapolis will also lose their jobs to Mexico.

State and local agencies from several northeast Indiana counties met last week to start coordinating efforts to offer future job training and other services to laid-off workers.

The United Technologies Electronic Controls plant, which produces heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, is Huntington's largest employer. For many, its decision to move operations is a reminder of more than 10,500 jobs lost when International Harvester left Fort Wayne in the early 1980s. Some know people who worked for Harvester.

"Anytime you lose a company with that many employees, it's a blow to any community," said Frederick, who knew some Harvester workers. "We hate to see it happen. It's just the global economy that it's cheaper foreign wages and so forth. It's not anybody's fault locally. It's just the way the world is these days. It's unfortunate."

The lost UTEC workers represent about 8 percent of the city's workforce age 16 and older, according to census figures. Jobs lost at Harvester represented about 12 percent of Fort Wayne's workers at the time.

It's a blow any way you look at it, said Bill Gordon, a retired Huntington attorney. But a couple of Huntington industrial parks are full and unemployment is down, he noted. While the Huntington city unemployment rate was unavailable, Huntington County reported 4.1 percent unemployment in December, down from 5.4 percent the year before. Out of a workforce of 18,729, that means 770 were without jobs.

"Harvester was a big loss, but it didn't say, 'OK, this is the end of Fort Wayne. It's all over,'?" Gordon said. "It takes some adjustment. The bad thing is it's going to cause hardships."

While Gordon is also confident that other jobs will come along, Kari Stephan, owner of Griff's The Cutting Edge hair salon, isn't as sure. She questions whether enough is being done to lure businesses.

Stephan said she has been downtown for 20 years and has seen other businesses come and go. While there are several restaurants and new apartments, she laments the lack of retail stores.

"As a business owner, you see business dwindling, people possibly having to relocate to find work," said Stephan, whose stepfather retired from Harvester. "I feel like I don't know how we as a community can do more. And who seeks companies to come to your town? That's been a question of mine for a long time."

About 65 percent of UTEC's workers live in other counties, a Huntington County official previously told The Journal Gazette. That leaves about 245 families living in the county to deal with layoffs in the coming year.

With less disposable income, it will be harder for them to go out to eat, which Lee Bowers notes is his bread and butter. Bowers, a retired lawyer and lifelong Huntington resident, owns the Rusty Dog restaurant, which opened six years ago downtown. Groups from UTEC often eat there, Bowers said.

He believes Huntington will have a harder time, at least initially, absorbing the loss of 700 jobs than Fort Wayne did with the Harvester layoffs. Bowers said he knows the mayor's office and economic development officials are working to bring in business. But regardless of the UTEC situation, it's difficult attracting new companies generally.

"I don't really know what kind of an effect it's going to have in town," he said. "Obviously, it's going to be detrimental that much income is leaving. That's going to impact my business."

Sitting on a bench downtown, Jeff Biddle said his dad worked at Harvester, and he has a couple of friends who work at UTEC. They're upset. One, a 62-year-old woman, has worked there seven years, he said. She's concerned she won't find a new job because of her age.

"They felt they had a secure job until they could retire because everything was going so well," Biddle said. "Everybody was excited about the future, and all of a sudden they dropped the ball."

While Biddle said the city could do more to bring in jobs, Christi Reber, arranging used purses for a sidewalk display down the street, believes the city is working hard to attract other businesses.

"I just think it's sad they're taking all the jobs away and taking them to Mexico just because wages are lower," she said. "If you want quality, keep those jobs in America."

If any store has potential to increase business in the coming months, it might be Dream Center thrift shop, where Reber volunteers. The store sells used items. Proceeds go to help people in the community down on their luck, she said.

"We have people coming in using our store a lot," Reber said. "So, I'm figuring with UTEC going out that we'll get more people coming in to try and save money and get different things that they need."

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