America continues to lose its edge on manufacturing. In an article authored by Rick Hampson for USA TODAY, he explores the notion of several industrial communities that are “teetering on the edge” of massive population and job losses. Most are communities reliant on one major industry or service.
One of the major highlights of the article revolves around the massive aluminum production plant just south of Ravenswood, West Virginia, a community of 4,000 along the banks of the Ohio River. The Kaiser Aluminum facility, which opened in 1957, included a reduction plant (smelter) and a fabrication plant. Lured by cheap energy prices and the proximity of good river, rail and highway access, the nation’s largest aluminum factory remained in production for over 50 years until the smelter closed on February 4, 2009, laying off over 650 employees. The fabrication plant, which employs more than 1,000, is still in operation.
And that has people in the one-industry town worried.
Ravenswood, and the county it is located in, was considered “a rural problem area” a half-century ago. It was poor, isolated and it’s mainstay was agriculture. Until the nation’s largest aluminum works was constructed. In just a year, the per-capita income of the county doubled, and at least two generations of workers were given the promise of job security and decent pay in a state that has had few opportunities for both. Suburban developments sprouted up on the north flank of town, aided by Interstate 77’s completion in 1964. Today, Ravenswood has some of the highest per-capita income in the state.
But losing such an icon can potentially leave Ravenswood high-and-dry. Their reason for existance, at least in its current form, can be all but lost. Ravenswood doesn’t have a hospital, or a university, and it’s not a county seat. The terrain is hilly and difficult, and few flat lands remain for major industrial development.
Historian Tom Juravich stated that Ravenswood is “one plant shutdown from oblivion.”
But the ghost towns of the west just simply do not occur anymore. At least, not without major economic loss. The community still has a Wal-Mart, and other marginal jobs that in effect, serve and pay each other. Or zero-sum jobs. And it still has affordable housing stock and cheap apartments, ideal for those in such low-wage jobs. But time will tell if the community holds through this crisis.
And it isn’t without precedence. New Boston, Ohio, once home to major industries such as Detroit Steel and it’s associated coke plant, went from being a prosperous, dense, middle-income community in the 1950s, to one of the poorest. It’s poverty rate skyrocketed after several industries closed, replaced with K-Mart’s and Wal-Mart’s that did little to attract new investment and high-wage employment. The city, desperate for anything positive, hailed the new “economic development,” not realizing how much they had lost in just a few decades.
And not realizing how much America had lost.
Ravenswood could very well be heading down this path.