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It takes less time to drive to downtown Indianapolis from Franklin than it takes from some of the areas within the capital city's limits. Its economic and cultural independence, however, keep Franklin from being a typical suburb.

While they acknowledge the benefits of proximity to Indianapolis, civic leaders in the Johnson County seat insist Franklin is its own city, with a laid-back life-style that sets it apart. Just as it has maintained an independent identity, Franklin has in recent years kept itself from becoming overly dependent upon any one industry or employer, a move that has given it remarkable economic stability for a city of only about 14,000 residents. And its economic diversity gives Franklin an optimistic future.

Things haven't always seemed this safe. Just 13 years ago, Franklin's employment picture was dominated by Columbus-based Arvin Industries, Inc.'s North American Automotive plant. With a work force of more than 1,000, Arvin was the symbol of a city whose livelihood depended too much on the automobile. Arvin today is still the city's largest employer, but the city's economic picture has changed enough that two years ago, when it appeared certain the plant's doors would close, no one was predicting. fiscal catastrophe in Franklin.

Had it happened in the late '70s, however, more than a thousand workers would have been idled simultaneously. But by 1988, Arvin's work force had been pared gradually to less than half its 1977 peak, making the prospect of a plant closing much easier to swallow. The exodus of Arvin never happened, though. Workers agreed to wage and benefits concessions and the parent company agreed to keep the plant open.

More competitive wages and benefits have allowed Arvin to boost activities and employment at the Franklin plant, where exhaust-system components are made. The city's other major auto-related employer, KYB Industries, Inc., a shock absorber and strut manufacturer, is still in a start-up mode. The worst anyone expects to happen there is slower-than-forecast growth. Another automotive company, NSK Corp., is in the process of moving manufacturing equipment into a Franklin building, and, according to Franklin Mayor Eddy Teets, it is already pondering expansion - even before the first bearings roll of the assembly line.

"We want, and we're getting, a good mix of industries," says Teets. "You don't want too much automotive-related industry. We really haven't been hurt yet by the automotive (slump)," he contends.

Even if the automotive downturn were to become significantly worse, Franklin's economy wouldn't collapse. "One of the big boons to this town and the community is that there are three large institutions: the Indiana Masonic Home, the Franklin United Methodist Home and Franklin College," notes Beezer Johnson, executive director of the Greater Franklin Chamber of Commerce.

The Masonic Home's work force of 407 is nearly as large as that of Arvin, and 210 people bring home paychecks from the Methodist Home. Together, the retirement communities are home to nearly 1,000 people, and the aging of the country's baby boomers practically guarantees a prosperous future for the two institutions. Johnson Memorial Hospital, a public facility located in Franklin, also is a major institutional employer with about 500 people on its payroll.

Franklin College's economic impact goes far beyond its work force of about 150, says Sid Downey, the college's vice president of finance. Of its annual operating budget of about $10 million, nearly two-thirds is spent within Johnson County. The college's 800 students, meanwhile, are said to spend more than $600,000 on such incidentals as pizza and toiletries during the 30 weeks that school is in session.

Just as important as its financial impact is the college's role in the city's image and life-style. "There are many, many communities that would give anything to have an institution like Franklin College to enhance their community," says Johnson."If you took the college away, you'd have a big vacuum."

"Franklin College is a big plus to the city," agrees Teets. "It is a college town."

But the diversity of Franklin's economy goes well beyond building auto parts, providing education and offering pleasant retirement. About 325 people make architectural aluminum products at Kawneer Co., Inc., while 180 work on radio frequency connectors at Specialty Connector Co., Inc. Plastic bottles are produced by 125 employees of Johnson Controls, Inc., in Franklin, and workers create building components at Davidson Industries, Inc., and Meadors & Associates, Inc.

Among the products made from BCC Products, Inc.'s plastic compounds are Fisher-Price toys. Franklin Plastic Products, Inc., is responsible for fabricating Dixie Cup dispensers and the white-and-gold wastebaskets used for collecting the trash of the rich and famous at Trump Plaza. Other Franklin businesses produce custom-embroidered garments, pallets and air compressors, and remanufacture engines.

Franklin has a healthy mix of industry, but the economic development work of city officials and business leaders is far from complete. They believe the city can achieve an even greater blend of business, and say their aggressive marketing efforts promise to bear plenty of fruit.

"Probably one of the biggest things that we're going to be doing is extending our city limits east of Interstate 65," says Teets. "We're looking at a research-and-development complex, some commercial (development) and we have need for a new quality motel with a conference center."

Such developments are common-place at the opposite end of the Indianapolis metropolitan area where Carmel and Noblesville lie, notes Teets. Franklin is also more accessible from Indianapolis International Airport and downtown Indianapolis, he adds.

Indeed, a number of developers already have looked over sites near the Franklin exit of 1-65, including one considering a research-and-development center. "There are some positive things moving forward, but not signatures on the line," says Teets. "We know it's going to happen."

Franklin's people are active, they're open and they're friendly. That is partly why three firms with Japanese parent corporations now call Franklin home. Franklin has a sister city in Japan - Kuji - and the diplomatic siblings have become successful co-workers. KYB, part of Tokyo-based Kayaba Industry Co. Ltd., was the first to arrive, in 1987. "My first impression was the warm, friendly people. It's a very beautiful city, and it has a cozy atmosphere," Akiyasu Shimura, Kayaba's manger of overseas operations, said at the time. "The people here are simple and kind."

Similar sentiments have been expressed by company officials of NSK Corp. and Safety Texas Auto Parts. NSK - the bearing manufacturer - is a U.S.-based subsidiary of Nippon Seiki KK of Toyko. Safety Texas Auto Parts is a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Oshima Electric Works Co. Ltd., and is a maker of automotive safety devices such as brake lights and mirrors. Says Takehiko Kobayashi, a member of a consulting firm working for Safety Texas, "It's a very friendly atmosphere. We learned that Kuji is Franklin's sister city, so we thought that this community has a good understanding of Japan, and we wouldn't be looked at like "E.T."

That's just the type of thing Franklin leaders like to hear, for it speaks well of the atmosphere they've worked hard to maintain. "We want to keep the personality of Franklin pretty much the same," says Johnson. "We're just country folk, friendly. We don't have a high crime rate, and we're used to a quiet, peaceful life. We're going to grow. The things we don't want to do is have uncontrolled development, never become a suburb of Indianapolis or let the metropolitan area affect our quality of life.

"If we keep things going like they are, I can continue to park my vehicle like it is sitting there now, with the keys in it," Johnson adds. "There are some people who don't lock their doors. We don't want to lose that."

PHOTO : The Johnson County Courthouse in Franklin: Finding economic diversity at the end of the automotive reign?
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Title Annotation:Regional Report; Indiana
Author:Stackhouse-Kaelble, Steve
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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