Recovering from the loss of 400 highly paid, highly skilled workers in Mount Vernon isn’t how Mayor Richard Mavis wanted to spend the last of his 24 years in office.
The elimination by September of Siemens AG operations, due in part to a worldwide decline in the power-generating industry, means not only lost jobs but also lost local income-tax revenue and related fallout for businesses, parks, schools and other community resources.
More than a quarter of the families upended by the closing live in town and shop locally. The workers are just blocks from downtown and often fill the local restaurants.
“Those 400 jobs are a real kick in our environment here. This will be a blow,” said Mavis, who estimates that the local income-tax loss will be at least $600,000 annually. The city’s $12 million general-fund budget was helped by a 0.5 percentage-point income-tax increase this year.
The mayor is both a realist and an optimist, however.
“In my position, I have to look at it as good news,” Mavis said of the 47-acre campus that soon will be empty. “It isn’t like a decrepit old steel mill like in some communities. These buildings have been maintained. And they should be of interest to people.
“The doomsayers will say you lost 400 jobs. But we have a very usable manufacturing property that has a lot of potential.”
Over the years, Siemens’ predecessors, including Rolls-Royce, invested tens of millions of dollars in new buildings and testing facilities.
And two years ago, when Siemens scaled back its assembly, testing and packaging operations, the Area Development Foundation, which serves the city and Knox County, hired MS Consultants to devise a redevelopment plan for the campus, said Jeffry Harris, the foundation’s president.
Now, said Harris, the city has “a tremendous opportunity to lease the 400,000-plus square feet of high-quality, pristine-condition industrial facilities to a range of end users.”
The industrial park is unique in Ohio because it’s within walking distance of the downtown of a county seat, Harris wrote in an email to The Dispatch.
Having Siemens alone on such valuable land “represented a precarious position for Mount Vernon and the remaining Siemens employees,” Harris said, noting that it is now “among the best-prepared communities for such a complete shut-down.”
Still, say local officials, the loss will be felt.
Carol Grubaugh, executive director of the Knox County Chamber of Commerce, called the news “devastating” and likely to cause a “chain reaction” of problems from the displacement of families.
The philanthropic impact, however, will be minimal.
“I can’t think of a philanthropic role the Siemens organization has had in our community, other than from individual employees,” said Sam Barone, executive director of the Community Foundation of Mount Vernon & Knox County. “It was never a company that anyone thought they could go to for support.”
Mount Vernon’s largest employer, Ariel Corp., by contrast, has helped revive the community with millions of dollars for parks, building renovations and numerous charitable causes.
“I think that that is a natural outcome of success — a compulsion to give back to the community that you are successful in,” said Karen Buchwald Wright, owner of Ariel, the world’s largest manufacturer of natural gas compressors. “You know the people who work for you, and they know you. It’s pretty hard to not do that when you see them at Walmart.”
Larger companies are not always so generous, she said.
“Once they become these big, faceless conglomerates, it just ends, or is done just for show,” she said.
When Cooper-Bessemer, a mainstay in town since the 1800s, sold to Rolls-Royce about 20 years ago, philanthropy from the company dried up.
“As they subsided, we grew,” said Buchwald Wright. “I guess I kind of took that over.
“The real hard part is for all the people who work there and needing to find them jobs,” she said. “My hope is that at least a good number of those folks will end up finding something (in Mount Vernon) and we’ll be able to keep a portion of that tax base.”
The community now must market itself, said Mavis.
“We have this wonderful community with many assets. But as a big employer, you have to ask, ‘How big is that workforce?’” Mavis said of the city’s 17,000 residents. “We have capacity to provide resources, we have great people. We need people and need jobs.”
The campus is suited to smaller users, or those needing large overhead cranes with high ceilings, officials say.
“We do not expect to put the whole 47 acres on the market. We’re not going to get a 1,000-worker employer,” said Mavis. “It’s going to be 50 or 100 employees at a time.”
“What makes us attractive is that we are a great mix of educational, agricultural and industrial; we have ... colleges and a great quality of life,” said Grubaugh.
Knox County Commissioner Roger Reed agreed: “It’s going to take a while to get it built back up. But we’re a community that survives.”