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City spotlight: Seymour.

John Cougar Mellencamp built a successful career by singing the virtues of small-town life-a life he knew in his hometown of Seymour. Although Seymour tries to maintain its homespun flavor, the community has grown since its favorite son made the big time.

This community of 15,000-plus residents is proud of the local boy who made good, and wants to retain the hometown flavor without appearing hick. "This is not Mayberry and being small is not a negative," says Mayor William Bailey. "We think we have the best of both worlds. We have a small-town personality that is not cosmopolitan in its outlook, yet we are progressive enough that we have been able to entice some major industry here the past five years."

Seymour, indeed, has attracted some big names in business lately.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the most recent of those big names, grew up in a small town, just like Mellencamp. The giant retail chain is based in Bentonville, an Arkansas town that has a population of 10,000. "Even though we're a large company, we're trying to keep that small-town image," says Jane Arend, a company spokeswoman.

Wal-Mart recently built a monstrous distribution center in Seymour that supplies 62 stores in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and northern Kentucky. The company naturally favored Seymour for its proximity to Wal-Mart stores and access to highway networks, but, Arend says, it also considered the quality of life and the residents. "We took a pretty hard look at the type of people we were going to work with."

When operating at full capacity, the

Wal-Mart distribution center will serve 1150 stores. The $34 million facility, in operation since February, hardly fits the image of anything small. Standing in the center, one can look in any direction without seeing the ends of the building. it contains more than 1 million square feet-enough space for about 20 football fields. Trucks may pull up to any one of the 176 loading docks. The trailer lot can park 2,200 semitrailers.

The local economy, heavily dependent upon the auto industry, suffered during the recession of the early 1 980s when employment ran as high as 1 3 percent. But the community quickly worked to right itself and in 1984 formed the non-profit Jackson County Industrial Development Corp. With its help, the community has recruited 10 new industries since 1986, most recently a $4.6 million distribution center for Russell Stover Candies, which is located in the nearby county seat of Brownstown. Unemployment in Seymour is now at a healthy 5 percent. For anyone who misses the bright lights of the big city, Indianapolis and Louisville, Ky., are about an hour away. Cincinnati is only 90 minutes to the east. This reflects Seymour's character as the "Crossroads of Southern Indiana," which has been the city's motto since its earliest days as a rail town. Interstate 65 runs north and south along Seymour's outskirts, while U.S. 50 runs east and west through town. The major markets of Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, therefore, are within a 300-mile radius of the city.

"In Seymour, you have a small rural area where people know each other," says Jim Plump, executive director of the Jackson County industrial Development Corp. "There are good workers and a lot of friendly people, and if you need the bright lights of a metropolitan area, you're not that far away."

It may be a small town, but Seymour is growing. The estimated value of new construction has risen steadily each year since hitting a 10-year low of $3.8 million in 1985. Building permits in 1989 reflected a value of $36.3 million.

Seymour has two industrial parks: Freeman Field Municipal Airport, a former World War II air base, and the newer Eastside Industrial Park. Two of the city's largest companies are tied closely to the automotive market. GTESylvania, which manufactures headlights, has about 700 workers, and Columbus-based diesel-engine builder Cummins Engine Co. Inc. employs about 500.

One of the biggest boons to Seymour's economy came in 1986, when Aisin USA Inc., a Japanese company that manufactures automotive components, announced plans for an auto-body parts plant. The company expanded in 1988 and now employs about 600 workers. "That was a real boost because all of a sudden we had a track record," Plump says. "Aisin is a very recognizable name in Japan." Two other Japanese firms have since located in Seymour. Kobe Steel Ltd., which started production in 1988, employs about 80 people. Seymour Tubing Inc., which earlier this year started production of steel tubing for shock absorbers, employs about 60 workers.

In the past few years, the community has attracted two new hotels, several restaurants and two shopping malls all spin-offs from an aggressive economic development plan.

All the activity has been noted by Mellencamp, who returns now and then to visit family and friends, or to shoot a film or a music video. While publicizing a Farm Aid concert at the Hoosier Dome in February, he grumbled about the large corporate role in agriculture. The corporate presence is so pervasive in the United States, he said, that "the town I grew up in-Seymour, Indiana-doesn't have a personality anymore."

Community leaders disagreed, of course, but there has been no loss of affection between the city and the superstar. John has been very good to Seymour," Mayor Bailey says. "We don't ride on his coattails and he doesn't prostitute us. It's a very nice, aboveboard, professional, each-respectingthe-other kind of relationship, and we're very proud of him."

Mellencamp maintains a professional connection with his hometown, as well as a personal one. He finished shooting his first film in September, using Seymour as the backdrop for some scenes. He directs and has a leading role in Souvenir," which is due for release by Columbia Pictures in 1991. The screenplay is about a famous singer who returns to his hometown to celebrate his grandfather's 84th birthday. "Souvenir" was written by Larry McMurty and is produced by Mellencamp's manager, Harry Sandler, but the original concept for the story is Mellencamp's, says Richard Mellencamp, his father.

Mellencamp has also used some scenes in Seymour for his music videos and has used its folks for local color, but the singer has long resisted having his music used in commercial promotions. The Indiana Department of Commerce's Tourism and Film Division, however-in exchange for a $5,000 donation to Farm Aid-got Mellencamp's permission to use the small-town image he projects in one of its recent tourism promotion campaigns.

In recruiting industry, though, Plump does not press the small-town advantage, at least not in the initial stages. When you're talking to business executives in Chicago, Detroit or Tokyo, their idea of a small town could be one stoplight in the middle of town, and they won't even want to come look," says Plump. "However, once we get the company to come visit, then we really sell the virtues of a small town."

To maintain a look of small-town vitality, the private sector in Seymour funded a $1 million renovation of its downtown, a project that was completed this summer. Seymour also paints the center line of U.S. 50 purple and white, which are the school colors of its only high school. "That enjoyment of community needs not to just ring cash registers. It needs to make students proud of their workplace, which is the school campus," Bailey says. "I know that's corny and hokey, but if it instills within them a little pride about their environment, then when they graduate, maybe they'll stick around and open their own little shop or they may buy a house here and go to work in one of the new industries."

Civic leaders are not shy about the size of their community.

"There's nothing wrong with being from a small town," says John Bottorff, executive director of the Greater Seymour Chamber of Commerce. "We think small-town living has a lot to offer, but sometimes you have to sell that to people who might be looking at something bigger."

An economic downturn would take its toll on Seymour as it would anywhere, but the city is more prepared now than it ever has been. "I think we've come a long way in the last 10 years," Bottorff says. "I see us progressing up the scale, but at a manageable rate."
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Title Annotation:Regional Report; Seymour, Indiana
Author:Gard, Jon
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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