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City spotlight: Bedford.

Nestled amid the rolling hills of South-Central Indiana, Bedford has a foundation of limestone, both physically and economically.

In 1825, the community, which today is the Lawrence County seat, was founded by residents of a nearby community, after a fever had killed a number of people there. Folks thought it best to seek higher ground at what is now Bedford, population 13,817. By the 1850s, rail service made quarrying limestone profitable, prompting a heritage that remains strong today.

Lawrence County limestone can be found in thousands of tombstones in the region, as well as in the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center in New York. It's in the Chicago Tribune Tower and the Pentagon in Washington.

To celebrate the American Bicentennial, Bedford donated to the Presidential Bicentennial Commission a large limestone carving of George Washington crossing the Delaware River.

But with the onset of mechanization, there are fewer so-called "cutters" around Bedford, says Mayor John Williams.

Companies such as Indiana Stone Works, an 8,500-square-foot plant located southwest of the city, have turned to automation to trim huge stone blocks to size. For example, the company's equipment includes a stone saw that, after being set up, requires no workers to operate.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, Indiana Limestone Co. employed about 4,000 people. Today, the company--which remains the largest producer of building stone--has 175 workers.

"I think there will be more limestone sold, but that won't necessarily result in more jobs in the local area," says Williams, now in his 13th year as mayor.

But Lawrence County's labor force rose from 19,350 to 29,790 between 1985 and 1990, and some of that growth was driven by two automotive companies in Bedford--Ford and General Motors. The GM Central Foundry has long provided hundreds of good-paying jobs, and is the city's largest employer.

Part of GM's Power Train division, its 1,300 employees produce aluminum castings, transmission cases, pistons and engine blocks. Thus far, the plant has escaped cutbacks from corporate restructuring announced earlier this year. GM has announced plans to close 21 plants and eliminate 60,000 hourly positions in the United States and Canada by 1995. Since the announcement, there has been much community apprehension about the plant's fate.

But Williams and Dr. Gregory Barnes, the new executive director of the Lawrence County Economic Development Corp., are confident that GM will retain the foundry.

"I think they feel they are in a stable position, relatively speaking, with regard to their industry," Barnes says. "As long as we continue to produce internal-combustion engines with conventional power trains, our factory will continue to do well."

He agrees with assessments that the plant could benefit from changes in the auto industry, such as fuel-efficiency requirements that could result in cars with more aluminum. If the plant can remain the largest aluminum-casting producer in the nation, it wouldn't be sensible for GM to sell it for a quick return.

"GM continues to prosper here despite rumors you hear about plant closings elsewhere," Williams adds.

He points to the growth of the Ford Electronics and Refrigeration Corp. facility, which opened in 1979 with 23 workers. Today, the plant employs more than 900 and makes automotive purge valves.

Ford has made a commitment to the facility in the form of expansion, which is now under way and could result in an undetermined number of additional jobs.

Bedford's other large employers are Regal-Beloit, which makes machine metal cutting tools and employs 190, and M. Fine and Sons Manufacturing, a clothes maker that employs 160.

Many work in nearby Mitchell. Carpenter Manufacturing, one of only five school bus makers in the nation, is Lawrence County's third-largest employer at about 425 workers. United Technologies, another auto-parts supplier, employs about 225.

Two factors influencing Bedford's economy include a community about 30 miles to the north on Indiana 37--Bloomington--and the Crane Naval Weapons Support Center in Martin County.

Like their neighbors in Owen and Greene counties, many Lawrence County residents commute to jobs at Crane, Indiana University, Thomson Consumer Electronics and several Monroe County employers. IU is said to be the largest Indiana employer south of U.S. 40, and Crane is No. 2.

"The Bedford area is sort of a bedroom community of Bloomington as far as the work force goes," says Don Foust, administrator of the Farmers Home Administration office in Bedford. "We end up with a lot of people who work in Bloomington."

Williams adds, "There's a mass exodus to Bloomington. They play a very important factor in our economy."

Despite the successes, unemployment remains high in Lawrence County. It was reported as high as 9.2 percent in July, but has since come down to the 8.5 percent range.

"We've got a wealth of unskilled, untrained people who live in the county," explains Williams, adding that the county's high school drop-out rate has ranked among the top five in Indiana.

No new major industry has come to Bedford within the last 12 months, but a number of retail establishments, restaurants and service firms have settled along the Indiana 37 corridor.

Construction permits are up considerably. For example, permits were issued by the city for nearly $2 million in new construction in August. Compare that figure to that of August 1991, when $250,000 in permits were issued.

At this point, the downtown area hasn't benefited much from this construction activity. Many storefronts are closed as some businesses have moved to the westside strip malls, where much of the retail growth has been. The city square now is "more of a professional center," the mayor says.

Soon, efforts to rejuvenate the downtown may begin. Bedford has received a $300,000 state community focus grant to improve curbs and other infrastructure. An independent downtown revitalization committee has been formed and is looking at ways to beautify the square. A small park to honor Bedford's limestone industry is planned for a vacant lot on the square's west side.

Another civic initiative perhaps even more important to the area is the formation of the Lawrence County Economic Development Corp. Barnes, its executive director, came on board July 1, but the corporation only became operational as of Sept. 11, he says.

In fact, Barnes says he doesn't even have a computer or a filing cabinet yet. But he does have firm plans to attend a series of meetings in late November with economic development professionals, local officials and civic leaders in Monterrey, Mexico.

Barnes' purpose is to serve as an "informal transnational and fact-finding envoy" for Lawrence County's companies, and to seek potential exporting opportunities for them. One prospective exporter is Carpenter Manufacturing. "I'd like to see them sell 1,000 buses in Mexico. They need them," says Barnes.

"We want to establish working relations with these folks, develop networks," and perhaps arrange for officials from the capital of Nuevo Leon province to come for similar meetings in Bedford.

As Barnes sees it, the initiative is one way of capitalizing on the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. It is not part of a state initiative.

"This is an independent action that we have taken as a corporation. I'm pretty proud of the fact that we've been able to do this on our own," he says. "We don't want to stop at Mexico. We want to look at all of Latin America."
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Title Annotation:Bedford, Indiana
Author:Vlahakis, George J.
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 1992
Previous Article:Where there's no will, there's a way.
Next Article:South Central Indiana update.

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