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As you know, Rustbelt political issues are big again in the U.S., this time focusing on "exporting jobs." It has always seemed to me that there are several strategies for dealing with regional industrial decline:
- Protectionism. "Keep those aging industries alive!" — for the time being. This seems to be the position of organized labor.
- Grow out of it. Trust the market. The market will eventually provide the jobs needed. Conservatives believe in this.
- Government jobs. As in the WPA or the CCC. Liberal Democrats once liked this but no longer do.
- Retraining. This is the preferred strategy among Democrats. Retrain displaced workers in occupations that are projected to experience job growth. A former steelworker can become a lab technician.
- Moving subsidies. Peter Drucker proposed this. It has a few adherents. Depopulate the counties with persistently high unemployment rates.
- The buildings strategy. This is my idea, as far as I know. This would involve a national policy of taking stock of large industrial installations that have shut down, and then trying to find new uses for them.
If no new use can be found, they would be dismantled, and their surrounding environment cleaned up — at no expense to the local governments — though the latter approach would be a last resort.
There is a precedent for such a policy. The Department of Defense does something almost exactly like this for closed military bases. An agency within DOD hauls away the crud, remediates the soil, clears away the really hopeless buildings, re-landscapes and then finds people willing to develop the buildings into industrial parks, shopping malls, community colleges, office buildings, and, in at least one case, apartments.
I don't see why it couldn't be done for dead steel mills, foundries, paper plants, and warehouses. Possibly they wouldn't even have to create a new agency; they could just expand the scope of that Department of Defense agency to include closed commercial buildings as well as closed military bases. What do you think? Do they do anything like this for industrial ghost-towns in Canada?
Sounds like a great idea to me, Mark. Maybe cities like Buffalo, New York, could have benefited from that policy. I doubt Canada has anything like what you suggest, but private enterprise has done something along those lines (more about that in a minute).
Towns in industrial decline are typically company towns: lumber, paper, mining, etc. When the mill moves or goes out of business, nothing takes its place; the “depopulated county” scenario kicks in, so what would be the point of converting the old plants?
Cities and even states risk going through big boom and bust cycles when they become industrial “monocultures”: Detroit, with automobiles, and California, with defense industries, come to mind.
Canadians have, on occasion, refurbished unused industrial sites. In one case, the word “plants” has been taken literally. An old brewery warehouse near Windsor, Ontario was recently busted for being the biggest “grow-shop” on record. Hectares of floor space were devoted to cultivating pot.
Why did it take so long to be discovered? You’d think Ontario Hydro would have wondered why an abandoned warehouse was one of its biggest customers for electricity.
Truly a Bewildering Story...
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Koerner and Bewildering Stories
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