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Rust Belt Rising

Photograph for OnEarth by Saverio Truglio
DREAM FACTORY Mayor Kris Ockomon sees a new future for Anderson, Indiana
Down-on-their-luck automotive towns team up to roar back

"I was a GM brat myself," says Kris Ockomon, the imposing mayor of Anderson, Indiana, in his spirited Hoosier twang. "Both my parents retired after 30 years of service. It's been a way of life around here."

Indeed, ever since 1906, when brothers Perry and Frank Remy developed an electric car starter in Anderson, the city has been synonymous with automaking. For nearly a century, freight trains set out from its downtown carrying alternators, wire harnesses, horns, and headlights to General Motors factories scattered across the country. No fewer than one out of every three Anderson residents worked in the city's two dozen parts plants.

But that was then, of course. Like scores of other cities and towns spread out across the nation's Rust Belt, Anderson watched as its automotive industry collapsed, a victim first of globalization and then of prolonged economic slump. In the past two years, though, Ockomon has steered this city of 57,000 toward a stunning reversal. In setting out to rehabilitate its industrial sites and retool its auto plants, he has attracted green businesses and rebranded the place along the way.

And he's not alone. Thanks in large part to a group called the Mayors Automotive Coalition, or MAC, mayors across the nation's conservative-leaning heartland are finding themselves the unlikely stewards of bright-green towns. A six-foot-three former police detective, Ockomon got together in 2008 with a handful of other mayors to found MAC, aimed at helping their communities deal with the litany of woes -- unemployment, declining populations, the polluted and abandoned industrial sites known as brownfields -- that had resulted from the crisis. The coalition now serves more than 50 communities, working to secure federal funds by developing proposals and drafting bills with the help of a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm and then descending on Capitol Hill to make the case in person. "These guys know people," says Anderson deputy mayor Greg Graham of the lobbyists. "They can pick up the phone and call them. And in Washington, you have to have that or you're going nowhere."

That hasn't been a problem for the mayors. Since 2008 MAC has advocated for more than $3 billion in funds for cleanup and rebuilding efforts in struggling automotive towns (including some whose mayors aren't official members). In early 2009, the group's efforts led to the creation of a $773 million trust fund to deal with environmental contamination at former GM facilities. "Communities like ours could never come up with enough money to clean up those environmental problems," says Graham, who himself oversaw a GM assembly line as a young man.

Another big success is MAC's drafting of the Auto Brownfields Revitalization Act (ABRA), which will establish a $375 million fund at the Environmental Protection Agency to provide assessment and cleanup grants for the retooling of brownfields. ABRA also calls for a five-year plan to allocate $625 million for the redevelopment of brownfield sites and for job creation in hurting towns. By reusing hundreds of acres of prime real estate, the mayors intend not only to rejuvenate downtown areas but also to preserve open space at their cities' edges.

Such "smart-growth" strategies increasingly turn up on MAC members' agendas, as their cleanup and recovery visions move in the direction of more far-reaching plans. Ockomon points to the Nestlé beverage factory that opened in Anderson in 2008, bringing jobs for 600 with it, thanks in large part to water system improvements paid for by funds secured through MAC efforts. The town's Flagship Enterprise Center houses Bright Automotive, the manufacturer of an electric delivery van, as well as a lithium-battery company, both of which received loans championed by MAC. Ockomon also is overseeing the redevelopment of Anderson's downtown, clustering new buildings along the rail lines that once served the auto plants to cut carbon-spewing traffic.

In Lansing, Michigan, Mayor Virg Bernero, a co-founder of MAC, has repurposed blighted land to create a pedestrian-friendly "green zone" with industrial buildings converted to riverfront offices; and Tipton, Indiana, will soon welcome Abound, a manufacturer of thin-film photovoltaic modules, into a plant built to make transmissions for Chrysler.

Kevin Hinkley is the mayor of Wixom, Michigan, which just recruited a manufacturer of gearboxes for windmills to its downtown. "When we attack Capitol Hill on a fly-in," he says, "you got 30-some mayors from around the country. We're Main Street. I don't have the ability to run to Lansing or Washington and hide from my constituents. I got to go to church with these people. We hear the troubles they go through, and when we go to these congresspeople, they see that struggle."

Of course, true recovery will mean more than just winning a bunch of federal dollars and attracting green industry. "What's required is identifying streams of income that can get reinvested in the economy and in changing infrastructure," says Henry Henderson, director of the Midwest program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"We can't stop what we've started in the last two years in terms of moving from grease to green," agrees Hinkley, who recently helped clean-tech outfits Xtreme Power and Clairvoyant Energy negotiate a plan to set up in a factory that once sent out Thunderbirds and Lincoln Continentals. "When the dotted line is signed on this deal," he says, "we are going to be the poster child for transforming a small community heavily reliant on the automobile industry."

Ockomon is similarly optimistic. "The [GM] retirees here are starting to diminish in numbers," he says, "and the young people realize that green energy and a healthy way of life -- that's the future."

Make way for the Bright Automotive brats.

image of Christopher Weber
Christopher Weber was a 2009 - 2010 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism. He covers all shades of the green economy, from vertical fish farms near his Chicago home to vintage electric car rallies in Florida. His writing has appeared in the C... READ MORE >
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