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Marion.

The home of six state basketball championship teams is ready for economic-development trophies.

It's not that the city of Marion lacks claims to fame. After all, the late actor James Dean was born there, and the late composer Cole Porter is said to have studied music downtown. And don't forget the six state basketball championship teams.

Marion also enjoys a fairly diverse industrial base. While General Motors Corp. is the largest private employer--its stamping plant in Marion turns out parts for models including Chevrolet Camaros--other sizable firms around town make everything including glass containers, paper office supplies, Christmas decorations and TV picture tubes.

But first-term Republican mayor Ron Mowery says this city of 32,000 found itself stuck in a rut for years. As Joseph Clement, vice president of DeVoe Chevrolet-Cadillac, puts it, "For some reason, Marion kind of fell asleep in the late '60s and early '70s."

But five years ago the private sector began showing signs of new investments and aggressive economic development. Today, city leaders are trying to attract smaller, diversified companies and promote a community image that is progressive, volunteer-minded and entrepreneurial. Marion-Grant County Chamber of Commerce president Gary Tyler calls the business climate in the Marion area "ripe for development," and says many companies are looking to locate in non-metropolitan areas like Marion.

"We've experienced some good positive attention from companies looking at Indiana," he says. A few manufacturers, including glass-making machinery producer Heye America, have opened smaller plants in Marion in recent years. The city itself recently built a $1.5 million project to extend water and sewer lines along Indiana 18 to Interstate 69 east of town, to accommodate smaller manufacturers.

At the same time, Marion's second-largest industrial employer, Thomson Consumer Electronics, has completed a $90 million, 225- job expansion for large-screen TV picture tubes. A new WheelTek plant also is due to open soon along Interstate 69 near Gas City.

In many ways, Marion resembles many other Indiana cities. It was called "Queen City of the Gas Belt" during the natural-gas boom in the 1800s, and then gained the GM plant in the 1950s.

Today manufacturing plays a key role in the city's economy with more than 11,000 jobs. But the retail and service sectors are growing, particularly on the west edge of town along the Indiana 9 bypass and near North Park Mall.

Marion also wrestles with keeping its downtown alive, using a new urban enterprise zone and business and residence rehabilitation programs to redevelop the area. A new city hall, county complex, enclosed retail-food court mall, hotel and $11.5 million vocational-training center have been developed in the central city since 1980.

The Grant County economy has been touch-and-go since the recession of the early 1980s. Local unemployment rates averaged around 8.6 percent in 1992.

"Our unemployment rate is too high," Mowery says. "We still have much to do in terms of gaining a more stable economy, but there are an awful lot of positives going for us right now."

Marion's largest employer is GM's Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada Group automotive body stamping plant, with 2,600 workers on the job. To the community's relief, the plant survived GM restructuring and cost-cutting efforts last year.

Thomson Consumer Electronics rivals CPC with nearly 2,600 people. Foster Forbes Glass Co., a leading glass-container producer, has about 750 employees.

GenCorp Automotive, which makes reinforced plastic and rubber for auto products, employs more than 600 workers but will lose jobs when its Corvette body-panel production lines are moved to Shelbyville and its Reinforced Plastic Division headquarters leaves Marion.

Other firms based in Marion include corrugated-container maker Bell Packaging Corp. and Christmas decoration producer General Plastics Corp. Marion also is known as the birthplace of the paper-plate industry. At one time, when paper plates were a brand-new item, five of the nation's nine paper-plate factories were in Marion.

But Marion's economy is more than just manufacturing. In fact, a number of Fortune 500 companies with specialized engineering needs call Marion to deal with Computer Age Engineering, says its president, Mike Bartrom. "We provide engineering services that include designing and manufacturing complete specialized machinery for the manufacturing process. The only kinds of things we produce are things that don't exist today." The company has a half-dozen employees working full-time at the Thomson plant overseeing use of specialized machinery, and a lot of the system that turns out Allison Transmission's World Transmission was designed by Computer Age Engineering.

Unique to Marion is a young company called J.D. Byrider Systems that sells "buy here/pay here" car-sales franchises across the country. A spin-off of DeVoe Chevrolet-Cadillac, the firm has 74 franchises that let customers finance car purchases through the dealership.

The city also boasts bank-holding company STAR Financial, a growing 1,500-student Indiana Wesleyan University and the World Gospel Mission headquarters.

As far as attractions and entertainment, the area's offerings include the Marion Philharmonic Orchestra, the Marion Civic Theatre and the annual Easter pageant in Marion, the James Dean gallery and museum in Fairmount, the Mississinewa 1812 Indian- soldier battle reenactment and the Salamonie and Mississinewa reservoirs. Tourists spent an estimated $34 million in Grant County in 1991.

Marion also stages an annual International Walkway of Lights along the city's riverwalk that Mowery wants to turn into the "biggest Christmas display attraction in the central states."
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Title Annotation:Marion, Indiana
Author:Buck, Ted
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1993
Words:889
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