Tales from a Dying Town- Extreme Makeover edition

Extreme Home Makeover is coming to town. Well, not actually here in town, but pretty close by and everyone in the area is involved. The buzz is flying – it is all over the local news ( radio and newspaper as well as the local Twitter crew). Since the 12 year old daughter Kori has been on a Relay for Life team with a local radio station for several years, she and her family are already used to being local celebrities. That is one of the advantages of being in a small town… you become inextricably linked to the others in towns around here. Everyone in the area here is glad to see people getting rewarded for doing good and helping to care for others. And it is a story like that that made Kori Brown an amazing story and helped to get her family on Extreme Home Makeover. When I say everyone, that is not an overstatement- there are lots of local churches and civic groups who are involved this week in the tearing down and rebuilding of a new home- and local high school students ( including my eldest daughter) are volunteering next Monday when they get to the “decorate/clean up/landscape” phase of the project.

They may call us a dying town, but I have never seen this sort of rallying energy from a dead organism before… if you are interested in the story, be sure to follow @HallmarkHomes for the full story.

Life in a Dying Town: When the potential for death makes you famous

A year ago, hardly anyone had heard of Kokomo. After tomorrow, people all over the world will know who we are when the “World Have Your Say” team from the BBC spends the day visiting with Kokomo.

Apparently, the 3rd most dying town in the nation is a good place to investigate the impact of Obama’s first 100 days. Since they are spending part of their time in the UAW hall, I have to wonder if any of it is co-incidental with the fact that tomorrow is also a vote day for the Chrysler unio workers as they vote to ratify ( or not) an agreement between Chrysler, Fiat and the unions. At this point, anything that keeps Chrysler alive and well in this town is going to seem like a good deal, so I really wonder why they even bother voting. Is anyone really fool-hardy enough to vote against keeping the town alive??

The purpose is supposed to be to look at how the first 100 days have impacted us… which made me wonder how they have. More rounds of layoffs have continued, the population continues to drop, which lowers the tax base. No new astounding businesses ave relocated here, boosting the economy. But are any of those things really the responsibility of our federal government? I do not believe they are.

The Government has gotten involved in the automaker’s worlds, which impacts us because of Chrysler, and because Delphi is still financially tied to GM in odd ways. They have also declared Auto Supplier assistance, but that I know of, Delphi has not gotten any of that cash ( not yet, anyway.. not sure if it is coming). Delphi’s Chapter 11 status remains an unsettling factor in the city economy, but there is no indication if Obama’s actions have helped or hindered.

My official verdict? Too soon to tell. As a matter of fact, even when the economy is good I am not sure any president could make a difference in just 100 days any more, unless they were in a second term and did not need to create cabinets an advisors and learn the ropes. We don’t yet know if Chrysler will survive and if Obama helped. We will not know for another couple of weeks if Delphi will survive. Money designated for stimulas plans is still being disbursed, how could we expect to see results.

And how will the BBC visit help? Will they show the wonderful parts of the town? The parks and the families and the fact that we are a relatively safe place to live? Will they show the kids gathering for Children’s Theatre practise tomorrow night? Will they show the local orchestra an the Community band rehearsing? Will they talk to our championship sports and music groups? Will they show the still growing and thriving local restaurants, bars and gathering places? Will the BBC portray us as a town that is working hard to thive, that is a great place to live and raise a family and has great potential for businesses to locate here? Or will they grasp on to the underlying sense of fear and desperation that lingers under every breathe we take and focus on that?

Tales from a Dying Town: Options Expo

No one is giving up yet, and even though none of the major employers in town is hiring, there is still a 2009 job fair going on at Ivy Tech tomorrow (March 25). This will be a group of potential employers, local educational institutions, military recruitment and volunteer organizations with openings all in one location at our Ivy Tech Campus for anyone interested. More and more, the “any port in a storm” theory makes employers who may have been your second or third choice look appealing.
There are people leaving town and looking for work in other towns or other states, but some brave folks ( or those trapped by mortgages on houses they can not sell) are sticking around and trying to make it work.
I will not be able to attend the job fair tomorrow, but I am interested in some perspective and insight from anyone who does go.

Tales from a Dying Town: leveraging social media

In this nationally advertised “dying town”, there is a grass roots movement to be seen as active and vital. Much of this activity is taking place on Facebook, through a group called “Let’s go Kokomo”. The “let’s go Kokomo” movement is not new, it has been active here on local radio for a couple of years. The movement was originally designed to help people find locally owned and operated businesses and to encourage them to shop there instead of driving out of town or shopping on the internet. The shift to Facebook has happened only in the last couple of months, and I think it is a nice rallying point for the folks here in town to gather and discover things about themselves. There is a lot of information on Facebook right now about Events and groups in Kokomo, but the truth is that it is still the result of a lot of effort by a very small group of people. And while it is fun and informative and makes living in a dying town less painful ( sort of like a morphine drip), I have not yet figured out how it will counteract the death march. If I am on Facebook, why would I search for and be interested in a group about Kokomo, unless I was already here? The Facebook activity reminds me of the Whos on the puffball, happily going about their business, in denial that the pot of oil is coming.

I do not want to discourage the Let’s Go Kokomo founders, because as a resident, I find the information infinitely useful. I even contribute. But we should be honest that we are doing this for ourselves, not to save the town.

I think there are ways to leverage the web and technology to let people out there know what a great town and what talent awaits businesses here in Kokomo. We need to get more involved in online activities that are focused outside of Kokomo and let people know where we are from with pride. Here are a couple of potential starting points:

1) The OpenStreetMap of Kokomo is almost empty. With so many people who have technical knowledge finding themselves with time on their hands, we should have the most densely filled in and informative map out there. Not only would this be helpful to people in and outside of Kokomo, but it shows that we take pride in our city and that we have a vision of the future where OpenSource and OpenData are important. A town full of forward thinking individuals is attractive to businesses, start ups and innovators.

2) Take all that resourcefulness and start innovating yourself. Stop looking to figure out how you can move away and get a job, start looking at all the great ideas trapped in those engineering brains and start building things right here. There are people already starting, and there are resources to help you out. The Inventrek center is looking to expand and launch lots of startups.

3) If you are out of ideas, or are not convinced that yours are worth working on, help out with someone else’s. Head over to sourceforge.net ( or your favorite open source area) and start contributing actively to other opensource projects. After you put in your 4 hours of job searching time each day, do not waste time cleaning the garage, or watching reruns on TV. Sit down and build something. Interact with the other people on your project, make connections and make the world a little bit better.

4) If you can not afford to give your time away for free and really need to work on more income, check out Innocentive.com for crowdsourced engineering and problem solving opportunities for pay.

These are just a few ideas. I would love to see discussion in the comments from the folks outside of Kokomo, what would you like to see and hear that would convice you that we are in fact alive? What will break through the barriers of understanding so that you hear us yelling “We are here, we are here, we are here….” ?

Tails from a Dying Town: Things are not always what they seem

Although our small town is heavily dependent on the automotive sector, there are a few other employers in town who are not in the service sector. One of those is the local Coca Cola Bottler. The Coca Cola company not only employs local folks, it is a very good supporter of the community and works with many organizations locally. One of the services Coca Cola provides are these advertising banners. Local organizations who are customers of Coca Cola can get them for free. Everyone else can get one for 30$. For a three line custom printed large vinyl sign, that is a deal.

But if you were just casually cruising through our town and saw these signs, you would be convinced we were already dead. Look closely. Yes, the dates on this sign say September. I took this picture in January of 2009. The signs hang there to this day. Are there really no new events? Is the town so dead that no one can afford fundraisers, plays or musical concerts? There is no doubt that the signs give that impression. But things are not always what they appear. Perhaps Coca Cola is struggling and can no0t sponsor the signs any more? Tht would be very bad news as well. I am glad to say that is not the case and if an organization called the Coca Cola company today, they can get a sign for their event. But they can not hang the sign over Washington Street downtown like signs have been for many years. The real truth is much more tragic. Last September, a street worker was hit by a semi while working on street lights and was killed. Although the accident had nothing to do with the street signs, the city has decided to not let anyone hang them across the street. It makes sense, until you consider that the old signs are still there.. hanging despondently…making us look like a dead dead town. If signs are a traffic violation, the old signs should be taken down. If traffic is not an issue, new signs should be put up to show that there is still a lot of life under the stress and pain in this town.

Tales from a Dying Town: an Intro

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.