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Fingers Crossed for Chrysler - and Kokomo

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.

"We've 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 days."

Goodnight is the son of a longtime Teamsters Union president and is himself the former president of a United Steel Workers local.

"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 of you."

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.

In 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 businesses.

"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.

"Chrysler 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 listen.

"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."

David 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.

Galvin points 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.

"The 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.