This week's tentative agreement with the United Auto Workers to cut by
half the amount of money Chrysler Motors contributes to the union
pension fund was welcome news in a heartland city of 45,000 people. The
next promising sign for Kokomo, Indiana, would be an agreement to
partially merge Chrysler with the Italian automaker Fiat. Even then,
it's not certain that Kokomo's four big Chrysler plants would be saved.
Called "America's third-fastest dying town" by the influential Forbes
business magazine in December, Kokomo is in a precarious position as
the 5,000 people who make Chrysler transmissions and engine blocks
there wait to learn their fate. And it doesn't help town spirits that
the second-biggest employer, Delphi Automotive, laid off 600 workers in
Kokomo last year and is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Long called Delco,
it made radios for General Motors until 1999 and is still the largest
supplier of parts and electronics to that troubled automaker.
'A pretty strong bunch'
Still, it's not all gloom and doom, says Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight.
gone through hard times," he says, "and we've watched our parents go
through hard times. So we're a pretty strong bunch."
Goodnight, who's 16 months into a job that hasn't exactly been what he
thought he was signing up for, adds, "Every day, I feel like I age two
Goodnight is the son of a longtime Teamsters Union
president and is himself the former president of a United Steel Workers
"It's tough all over," he says. "It may be a
little tougher here at times because of the manufacturing base and
because of Chrysler, specifically. Do I wish they were in a better
position? Absolutely, but you've just got to deal with what's in front
Not a vacation destination
At least millions of Americans have heard of Kokomo. Sort of, in the song that goes:
"Everybody knows a little place like Kokomo
Now if you wanna go to get away from it all
Go down to Kokomo."
Of course, the Kokomo that everybody knows in that Beach Boys' hit is
not the Indiana manufacturing hub. It was a make-believe bar in the
Florida Keys. Mayor Goodnight knows all too well that the real Kokomo
is certainly not a place to get away from it all right now.
Oddly situated among the cornfields of northern Indiana, an hour north
of the big state capital of Indianapolis, industrial Kokomo has been an
auto town for more than a century. Longtime Kokomo newspaper reporter
Fred Odiet - who's now the county's official historian - says Elwood
Haynes was a chemical engineer who came to town in 1884 to supervise
operations when gas was discovered under nearby fields.
order to supervise, he had to go out to various fields, Odiet notes.
He had to go by horseback. Well, he didn't like riding a horse all
that well, so he put his brain to work and came up with what is called
The Pioneer, which is now in the Smithsonian in Washington. That was
the first commercially built automobile in the United States.
The four-cylinder Pioneer, which reached a top speed of 12 kilometers
per hour, was lightweight. Haynes' associates had equipped it with the
first-known aluminum engine. Soon Haynes and others established small
auto plants in obscure Kokomo, and the city's automotive heritage was
born. Over the years, as a Continental Steel mill and smaller
factories failed or moved operations overseas, the city's prosperity
was hitched to Chrysler and Delco.
A city ready for a rebirth
But instead of sulking, Kokomo appears to be reinventing itself.
Mayor Goodnight says his is the first city in the nation that makes its
own biodiesel fuel to power its fleet of 80 fire and trash trucks and
buses. He chuckles as he notes that what the city calls K-Fuel is
recycled from cooking oil contributed by citizens and 20 local
"It's a pleasant french-fry smell!" he jokes "Some days it's chicken nuggets!"
Not really. The only smell is the potential scent of money.
Community Development Officer David Galvin says K-Fuel is the first
step in what he calls the greening of the city's business base.
and Delphi and the steel companies in Kokomo have grown with this
community for generations," Galvin says. "We have now reached a point
where it is time to change."
Brandon Pitcher, who is the CEO of a zero-emissions consulting firm, has spent
10 years talking-up sustainable energy to anyone in Kokomo who will
"I used to be considered a zealot, crazy, a 'tree
hugger,'" Pitcher says. "But I really come with a business
background. It took the fall of the American automotive industry to
get people thinking. When they were thinking they were successful,
they weren't thinking very long term, because they were getting a big
paycheck every week. If you can change these people, and change this
culture, you can't stop us."
Because of the troubles at
Chrysler and Delphi, people are listening now, Pitcher says. The city
has put out bids for solar panels for many of its office buildings and
schools. And there's serious talk of setting up green technologies
like anaerobic digesters and algae pools.
"A green, or
sustainable, economy, as people are calling it, can be a positive
thing," Pitcher believes. "And there can be a lot of profits to be
made in the process. I haven't heard anybody say, 'No, this is a bad
idea' and that they don't want to participate."
Galvin says the greening of Kokomo is not some kooky futuristic
experiment. He sees thousands of new jobs in its future - assembling
solar panels, making parts for algae ponds, and so forth. Kokomo has a
skilled workforce and plenty of factory space, he says. And the auto
crisis has provided the motivation for change.
out, "When we approach a company to bring high-tech jobs to Kokomo, the
thing that is always the attractive part of our community is this
economic and environmental sustainability plan."
Entrepreneurial spirit endures
In some towns, such optimism might be viewed as hollow - whistling
past a graveyard. But Kokomo got its nickname, the City of Firsts,
with one entrepreneurial innovation after another. Besides Elwood
Haynes's first commercial horseless carriage: the first pneumatic
tires, the first stainless-steel table wear, the first Howitzer shell
and aerial bomb with fins, the first all-transistor car radio and even
the first canned tomato juice!
Historian Odiet says a town with that kind of entrepreneurial heritage won't be down for long.
people, they want to work. They want to raise their families. They
wouldn't have come to Kokomo if they didn't like it. And they wouldn't
have stayed here. I think everything looks good for Kokomo to rise
back up again."
Not right away, most likely, with
unemployment in town approaching 10 percent, and with the future of the
American auto industry very much in flux.