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Business leaders refute ‘rust belt’ label

As the political campaigns heat up, business and civic leaders resent the “rust belt” label for Wisconsin, other Great Lakes states.

It still pops up frequently at election time, a too-convenient way to paint a big stretch of the country with a broad brush in a color that some say isn’t nearly as applicable as it once was.

The term “rust belt” has gotten very rusty.

“The term ‘rust’ does not describe who we are. That’s been a burr under my saddle for years,” says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Yet from Pittsburgh and Buffalo through Cleveland and Detroit to Milwaukee, the term is still used liberally to represent a region — primarily along the Great Lakes — that was devastated when steelmaking, automaking and other heavy metal industries were disrupted by globalization, a series of recessions, and other economic tremors.

One recent New Yorker magazine article on Donald Trump’s campaign used the term no fewer than 10 times. It’s also a common sound bite for network television reporters on the campaign trail.

“Long-held perceptions are hard to shake, but I think we can say with a lot of certainty that any rust that was on our belts was shaken off a long time ago,” said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

Milwaukee still has a lot of manufacturing, which remains a major component of Wisconsin’s economy. But the metro area also has a diversified economy that includes 56,000 people who work in finance, insurance and information technology. That’s nearly $5 billion in annual wages, according to Sheehy.

The top 25 investment management companies in Milwaukee manage about $218 billion in assets.

“Not only is ‘rust belt’ an outdated moniker for companies that are manufacturing products here, it also doesn’t fairly describe the economy anymore,” Sheehy said.

The mere mention of the term when discussing manufacturing these days angers Eric Isbister, president of GenMet, a Mequon metal fabrication firm.

“The use of derogatory terms like rust belt perpetuates the bad perception of American advanced manufacturing in the minds of people who are important, including young people who we need to become engineers and manufacturers, and their parents, teachers and guidance counselors,” Isbister said.

“Politicians who use terms like rust belt probably have not been in a manufacturing facility in decades. … After they visit a place like GenMet, they will be embarrassed at the damage they’ve done to American manufacturing by the use of the term rust belt,” Isbister said.

GenMet has hosted more than 1,800 students from the Milwaukee area in plant tours aimed at providing a look at modern manufacturing jobs, where there’s more emphasis on technical skills than having a strong back.

“But some politician saying ‘rust belt’ can turn away more people in one speech than I can have on tours here in years,” Isbister said. “When somebody stands up at a podium and uses a term like that, you think of dirt-floor factories with pigeons flying around, dark and smoky.”

Without question, the term was accurate in describing cities and towns more than 30 years ago in the industrial heartland decimated by foreign trade and multiple recessions. And manufacturing will likely never return to the days when sprawling factories employed a seemingly endless number of people.

Also, many cities and small towns haven’t fully recovered from the downfall. Plus, the population in some cities, like Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, might never return to the levels of 60 years ago when manufacturing dominated employment.

“Despite progress, Greater Cleveland is still in the grips of an economic restructuring into a knowledge-based economy. Employment gains are moderate. Population growth is lacking. Home values are low. These facts are known. Less known is that many of today’s urban success stories had a similar Rust-Belt profile not long ago,” Cleveland State University researchers Richey Piiparinen, Jim Russell and Charlie Post said in a 2015 report titled “From Metal to Minds: Economic Restructuring in the Rust Belt.”

Milwaukee has seen its share of successes, including the redevelopment of the Menomonee Valley and other industrial areas that had fallen on hard times. Even the city’s former Tower Automotive site, which could have been a poster child for “rust belt” references as recently as 10 years ago when the company went bankrupt, is being reinvented.

Millions of dollars have been poured into its redevelopment — it’s now called Century City, and business tenants have begun moving in — and the elements for a successful business park are in place, said Benji Timm, the project manager.
Century City Building 1 is at the former Tower Automotive

Century City Building 1 is at the former Tower Automotive site in Milwaukee. (Photo: Calvin Mattheis / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“We have spent the last few years cleaning up the site and doing demolition, basically preparing 60 acres for development,” Timm said. “We certainly want to attract new business from outside the area, but just as important we want to help the businesses in the area grow and expand.”

Educated millennials are transforming some of the other so-called rust belt cities. For example, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Grand Rapids, Mich., have experienced some of the biggest increases in the number of young college graduates among large cities, according to research from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Population won’t rebound immediately, but when you attract educated people with a knowledge-based economy, it fosters growth.

“Silicon Valley happened for a reason, and that was research universities and federal research laboratories,” said Cleveland State’s Russell, a research consultant with the university’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs.

At Marquette University, students in Douglas Fisher’s supply-chain management classes are focused on areas such as “Industry 4.0,” the latest iteration of advanced manufacturing and product distribution.

“I pound it home early in the semester to get them excited,” Fisher said, adding that a term like ‘rust belt’ wouldn’t have a place in the discussion.

The students who graduate from his program, Fisher said, have about a 98% job placement rate, with most of them landing positions in the Upper Midwest.

“We have one of the largest single concentrations of manufacturing in the United States,” he said.

As other nations modernize their manufacturing and economies, they’re turning to companies in the Great Lakes states for advanced technologies, said Tricia Braun, deputy secretary at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

The term rust belt is a reminder of how important it is to invest in new technologies, so the region doesn’t go through another dark period like the one that wiped out thousands of jobs, Braun said.

“To even think about using that term now seems odd or out of place,” she said.

The term rust belt probably isn’t used to describe university towns like Madison, yet former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz gets angry when other areas of the state are painted with that broad brush.

“I am surprised there hasn’t been more pushback on this from the (Wisconsin) media and politicians, chambers of commerce and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. You hear folks in those influential groups actually use the term themselves,” Cieslewicz said.

The South is often called the “sun belt,” a much broader and obviously more flattering term. Rust belt, by contrast, focuses on one negative stereotype born decades ago.

“While we need to acknowledge that it’s part of our history, it doesn’t nearly describe what we are today,” Cieslewicz said. “Why on earth do we accept a term that has the most negative connotation that you could imagine about our region? It’s harmful.”

Courtesy : jsonline.com



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