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Rust belt revival?

Rust Belt Revival?

New Bedford, Massachusetts, has a history as a great whaling port, a bustling fishing town and a sturdy manufacturing center. But its present is grim, and its future seems devoid of promise. Rough winters, demographic shifts and a sharply falling local business profit rate have conspired to bring more than a fair share of hard times to the community. Unemployment runs far above the state average, factory owners pack it in or flee to more congenial locales, and the social fabric shows the wear and tear. New Bedford's biggest story in recent times was the case of a gang rape of a woman on a tavern pool table.

But from the bottom of this trought of troubles, New Bedford is looking up with a new idea that is more than a political slogan and that could point the way to immensely important changes in the American urban political economy. According to a plan now under discussion, the city would use its right of eminent domain to buy one of its oldest companies, Morse Cutting Tools, which is about to be abandoned by its multinational conglomerate owner, Gulf

Western. New Bedford would run the works or sell it off to another suitable buyer. In either case, some 450 jobs would be saved, and if the company was revivified, many more of the 750 jobs that have been lost there in the last several decades might be restored.

Over the years, municipalities throughout the country have bought up private transport and light and power companies. Some have made equity investments in local business: Hartford, for instance, owns a piece of a downtown hotel. But there is no tradition of city ownership of manufacturing operations. The problems are formidable. Public service companies can count on stable, predictable markets of power consumers, bus riders or train commuters. A conveniently located new hotel will usually attract a steady flow of tourists and salesmen. But a factory must compete in a wildly fluctuating national and international market. What Gulf Western ran into the ground, New Bedford would be hard put to resurrect.

However impractical the case of Morse may be, the principle involved is enormously attractive. Municipal enterprise does much more than save one big industry. It allows community authorities to make plans in a wide area of development: in housing for workers, in the reconstruction of a service infrastructure, in transportation, recreation and education. Money generated from the business could be plowed back into city services--and investments in related businesses. Unions, workers' cooperatives and citizens' groups could be organized to participate in the development schemes.

The key to success in municipal enterprise is the democratization of the planning process. Innovation must be built into the system. City ownership alone does not insure that a company will contribute to general development. There is always the possibility of failure with "lemon socialism'--the public takeover of businesses that have been doomed by private enterprise. But if New Bedford makes the deal, a tantalizing precedent will be set for rebuilding the decaying cities of the Rust Belt.

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Title Annotation:municipal purchase of factory in New Bedford, Mass.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Jun 16, 1984
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