I live in Kokomo, IN. This is a blog post I have resisted writing for over a month, but the truth is there is a story unfolding here that needs to be told. Until December 9, 2008, most of the world had never heard of Kokomo, and Kokomo was fairly content for that to be true. On December 9, 2008 Forbes.com published their list of the “Fastest Dying Cities and Towns” and Kokomo made number 3 on the list of Dying Towns. Enter instant worldwide infamy. How could a small city, once renowned for its innovations ( it is known as the City of Firsts), have become the place expected to be the most impacted by the failure of the Big 3 automakers? The outlook for Kokomo’s future is not bright. Unemployment continues to climb, and the number of jobs continues to decline.
One of the points of failures is the fact that the town enjoyed incredible amounts of easy prosperity for many years. My neighbors may hate me for pointing it out, but as a unified city, they got a little lazy. The two major employers in town are Chrysler and Delphi ( historically, Delco Electronics). Both of these companies have been in the town for more than 70 years ( at least 3 generations) and in the last census, were responsible for employing almost a quarter of the town directly. If you are a teenager with long family local family history living here, Chrysler and Delco (as Delphi is still lovingly referred to) have always existed. There is a reasonable probability that at least one of your parents worked there, likely that one of your grandparents did and almost impossible to imagine that one of your great grandparents didn’t. Those two companies are intertwined into the roots of the community so deeply that most people can not imagine the city without them. Imagining the city without Chrysler is almost as impossible as imagining the new skyline before the Gas Tower was imploded in 2003.
Although the two companies have been here for a long time, they did not always employ such a high percentage of the city’s citizens. From the late 1890’s until 1960, there were many other local companies cranking out innovations. As Chrysler and Delco expanded their operations, it became easier and easier for the local residents to just go to work for the big employers rather than continue their educations, continue innovating, or start their own business. There were not many other towns in the 1980s and 1990s where you could get a high school diploma and go to work and make over $50,000/yr. People became complacent and rode the wave high.
But now the wave has bottomed out and many folks have been caught with their bellies grinding onto the sand. It could be a complete disaster, the end of an era. But amongst the depression and anger and feelings of betrayal, there are signs that give me hope that Kokomo might not die after all. The entrepreneurial spirit is making a come back and I see many interesting businesses and ideas starting to gel. Although times are hard and desperate, it is possible that Kokomo could make it through this dark tunnel and come out a stronger, more diverse town. It will be highly dependent on the individual spirits and the drive to succeed that I hope has not been bred out of the inhabitants of this town I call home.
It is my intent to do a post at least once a month following the trials, tribulations, failures and successes of my friends and neighbors as they struggle to survive this tidal wave of economic failure. I welcome your thoughts, feedback and caring commentary.