By Benjamin Raven (@BenjaminRaven42)
GREENVILLE — At 635 W. Charles St., just around the corner from Greenville High School, there is a 1.7 million-square-foot void left in the city. For citizens, it is an open wound and an everyday reminder of what their town once was.
Growing up in Greenville, we were known for being the birthplace of Meijer , the Danish Festival City and for more than a century, beginning in 1892, the “Refrigerator Capital of the World.”
Greenville, population 8,460, first was the home to Ranney Refrigerator Co. and then to Frigidaire, a venerable American brand name. The town was the epitome of the manufacturing era that Michigan had thrived on for many years.
Spending my youth in the Refrigerator Capital was something that I always thought was “cool” when I was in my adolescence. It was the feeling and sense of pride, and the thought that, “Wow, the whole world counts on the town I live in for all their refrigerators.”
Of course this was not the case, and while no one in my family had worked at the plant, many of my classmates’ parents and family members soon realized, “We’re going to have to start all over.”
Electrolux bought Frigidaire in 1986 and inherited the factory, which it ran for 18 years. But, in 2004, the Swedish company said it would close its plant in Greenville and build a new one in Juarez, Mexico. Electrolux said the action could save the company upwards of $81 million per year.
“It was like a nuclear bomb went off,” said Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat who was Michigan’s governor when that move took place.
I was a junior at Greenville High School when the plans to move to Mexico were announced. I knew that thousands of people were going to be impacted by this, but how?
Electrolux accounted for close to 20 percent of Greenville’s tax revenue and 2,700 jobs, equaling more than $400,000 in salaries lost. The company created over $200 million in revenue for the region, by way of its suppliers and delivery system.
Granholm, now teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, calls Greenville “the poster-child” for the structural changes in America’s economy. Those changes include manufacturing jobs being replaced by service jobs. “As a nation we lost 50,000 factories in the first decade of the 21st Century,” Granholm told me in an interview. “We tried everything to keep Electrolux.”
The state of Michigan offered Electrolux a package that included $182 million in tax credits and a state sponsored partnership to build a new factory.
“Nothing could compete with $1.57 an hour in Juarez,” Granholm said. “They told us it was the most generous a community has ever been in trying to keep jobs, but there is nothing you can do to compensate us (Electrolux).”
Workers at the plant in Greenville typically made more than $13 per hour.
It just seemed wrong, it felt as if a crime had been committed against my hometown. How can this company put so many American workers out of a paycheck? How can Electrolux live with themselves?
Saving $81 million a year is how they can live with themselves, as it turned out.
The event sparked a domino effect of manufacturing jobs disappearing in the town. Greenville Wire Products, Tower Automotive and Federal Mogul either shut down or endured massive cuts in the years following.
When I come home and look around town, it almost feels empty. In my five years away from Greenville, it has changed so much. I got my first job at Jorgensen’s Supermarket in 2006, It was a family owned corporation and staple in Greenville for more than 30 years.
But it’s no longer there. Now at 1325 West Washington Street, on M-57 in downtown Greenville, an ACE Hardware store stands where the hometown grocery store stood for so many years.
Electrolux was only the first major blow to Greenville. The state launched a search for companies that could come in behind the appliance maker and open new businesses there. In 2006, shortly after the official closing of the Electrolux plant, United Solar agreed to build six new factories in Greenville. The first plant was to have created 200 new jobs in the area and an additional five plants would bring in another 1,000, the company promised.
Michigan had to compete against South Carolina for the project, and Granholm added $37 million to sweeten the deal. It seemed to be everything that the city needed to bring its morale up from the ashes and to stabilize the economy.
The United Solar announcement seemed to right all that was wrong. One factory out with six more were coming in.
By 2010, only two of the proposed six factories were built, and the other four never came to fruition. United Solar filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and laid off 300 workers, ending its short-lived run in Greenville.
“Words can’t describe how disappointed we all are by the failure of the company, this is a casebook study for success,” Granholm told me. “We had supply, but no demand for these solar panels.”
How could something of this magnitude happen to our town again? The feeling of disappointment was far too familiar, and once again the massive unskilled labor force in Greenville was unemployed.
Granholm points to the fact that the United States is nearly alone in the world when it comes to “homemade” renewable energy.
“If we (U.S.) had such a policy—like almost every other industrial country,” Granholm said. “The outcome would have been much different for Greenville.”
As the events from Greenville have shown, a city or state by itself cannot take on globalization. While the federal government has helped certain industries out, cities have been left to fend for themselves, as their industrial economy becomes a thing of the past.
The town has had some exciting developments in the past three years. A new $6.5 million football stadium, replacing Black Field, was built. Black Field was the home to Greenville football since 1933. There is a new brewery that is located downtown across the street from the old Jorgensen’s supermarket.
But at this point in my life, with a college degree in sight, Greenville has nothing to offer me. I am not going home to work for minimum wage or in an unskilled position. A football stadium and a brewery are great for morale, but Greenville needs jobs.