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Illinois City Looks To Rebound

March 22, 1998

DECATUR, Ill. (AP) _ Being labeled ``Striketown U.S.A.″ doesn’t do much for a town’s economy or its image.

That was the situation Decatur found itself in during much of 1994 and 1995 when three major labor disputes overlapped, placing thousands of workers on the picket line and Decatur in the news.

But many now feel that the worst is behind them.

Most of the strikers are back at their jobs, unemployment is at 18-year lows, downtown has gotten its first new office building in decades, national chains are opening stores, and Millikin University is expanding rapidly.

``We were called a town at war,″ said librarian Jerald Merrick. ``That’s not conducive to bringing businesses in easily. And if you weren’t aware of Decatur before then, that didn’t leave a good impression.″

Decatur has always been heavy on industry. Smokestacks dominate the skyline, and the city serves as the corporate headquarters to seven major industries employing more than 5,000 people.

Then in June 1993, A.E. Staley Manufacturing locked out 750 workers after they refused to accept changes in the seniority system and a switch to 12-hour shifts. Managers feared they would sabotage the plant.

Troubles intensified when the United Auto Workers launched a nationwide strike against Caterpillar Inc. in June 1994 and 1,900 more workers walked off the job. A month later, 1,200 United Rubber workers at the tire plant joined a national strike against Bridgestone-Firestone Inc.

About 6.5 percent of the workers in this town of 84,000 were on strike. And reporters from around the country came to town to document the Midwestern city’s labor troubles.

Julie Moore, a reporter for local station WAND-TV during the disputes, said the situation was awkward because residents who weren’t directly involved knew many people who were.

``It was very tough. There was a pervasive bad attitude. You were either on one side or the other, and neither side was very good to be on,″ said Moore, who is now head of the Metro Decatur Chamber of Commerce.

Labor troubles started to clear up by the end of 1995, but things were far from settled.

In May 1995, the union ended its 10-month strike against Bridgestone-Firestone, but many workers did not have jobs to which they could return. In December 1995, Staley ended its lockout, and the UAW workers returned to work at Caterpillar without a contract _ something they were unable to agree upon until last week.

Since then, the city has campaigned to improve Decatur’s image and foster more civic pride.

Local residents have been loaded on buses and treated like tourists finding out what the city has to offer. They also are being reminded that their parks, cost of living, schools and cultural opportunities compare favorably with nearby cities like Bloomington and Springfield.

``Everything has calmed down and smoothed over here. People need to take a deep breath, look around and say, `This isn’t such a bad place to live,‴ said Ann Hearn, who has run a downtown boutique for nine years.

City leaders are trying to move Decatur away from its image as a gritty manufacturing town. A market profile of the city done by a private company found 53 percent of the Decatur population works in white-collar fields, while about 29 percent are in blue-collar jobs.

Kara Demirjian, who is handling leasing of a new office building downtown, said that distinction is necessary if the town is going to attract a variety of businesses. For instance, Talbots, an upscale women’s clothier, opened in the building this month.

But Decatur still has problems. Last June, Great Lakes Aviation canceled its money-losing air passenger service to Chicago. Although city officials are working to get the flights restored, the town currently only has flights to St. Louis.

Downtown, Merchant Street _ once home to rowdy bars and brothels _ is flourishing with boutiques and restaurants. But there are a number of vacant storefronts, and the Sears, Roebuck and Co. department store is relocating to a mall in the suburb of Forsyth.

The unemployment rate of about 7 percent is lower than it has been since the early 1980s, but is still higher than the state average of about 5.6 percent.

And Larry Solomon, former president of the United Auto Workers local, said the city continues to lose good-paying union jobs as companies downsize and consolidate. The stores Decatur is so proud of attracting _ coffee shops, home accessory stores, large theater chains _ won’t help the economy, he said.

``You can’t have your cake and eat it, too. If they’re going to promote low-wage workers and low-wage jobs and expect that to support the community, that’s not going to happen,″ he said.

One thing most Decatur residents can agree on is the importance of Millikin University, the nearly 100-year-old private college on the town’s west side that has built new apartments and dorms for more than 400 students in the last two years.

The university also has added practice fields, upgraded its track _ and most importantly, bought and demolished a number of nearby dilapidated buildings and stores that were used for drug deals.

``I think the city has turned a corner,″ Merrick said.

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