Hard Times: Tiny town hit hard as main employer cuts jobs
Holly and Steve Manginell, of Emporium, face leaving their hometown to find work after Mr. Manginell lost his job with GKN Sinter Metals, Cameron County's biggest employer.
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EMPORIUM, Pa. -- After his wife, Holly, kissed him goodbye and went off to the family's remaining job, Steve Manginell climbed into his pickup truck and wheeled it up a hillside where he could see the plant that once employed him and the town he doesn't want to leave.
"Anything that I ever wanted was here," he said, "except for a job."
There are days he wants to curse himself for the times in his youth he couldn't wait to get out of this tiny blip in the forests of northern Pennsylvania. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, he came home, married the prettiest girl in town and landed a job at GKN Sinter Metals, the burgeoning centerpiece of the town's powdered metals industry.
He started at $6 an hour. By December, he was a few cents shy of $20 an hour, packing money into his 401(k) and, at 40, talking with Holly about the day he'd retire from that plant. They bought a gloriously isolated house on a winding road a mile from the factory.
"Boy, in the summertime, it's beautiful," he said, pointing up a hillside from his back deck. "As far as you can see, that's mine. There's not a whole lot you can do with it, but I can always say it's mine."
GKN's major customer is the auto industry and, in the go-for-broke decade before the recession, Americans were buying cars, retirement accounts were swelling with wealth that seemed to fall from the sky, and Cameron County, with its mix of trout streams and niche metals companies, was world enough for a boy who once wanted to leave and now flirts with tears at the thought of exile.
The idea was planted Dec. 18. He got home from a 12-hour overnight shift at GKN, where he was a mechanic fixing everything from metal presses to conveyors. The phone rang and the boss said not to come back. His job was gone.
The company offered to let him reapply for an entry-level job at his old starting wage -- an offer Mr. Manginell said was less than the $400 a week he receives in unemployment. His wife is director of recreation for the county. Her job pays $23,000 a year. Once unemployment runs out, the couple and their two teenage children will have that alone to live on. They have no health insurance. Buying COBRA coverage would have eaten almost all of his unemployment check. The state health insurance program for unemployed adults has a waiting list of 200,000.
Today, he worries about finding another job and, in a sense, regaining a self he has seen dissipate as he stays home, juggles laundry and scratches about for something to do in a place where good paying jobs are few, prized and vanishing.
"Ten years ago we were under the understanding that this is it. This is our lifeline and this is how we get to stay here in Cameron County, and this is how we're going to support our families and this is where we're going to retire," Mr. Manginell said.
That understanding, shared by millions across the nation, was broken in a series of shocks that emanated from Detroit. Automakers, such as General Motors -- a key GKN customer -- began to fail. Bankruptcy, once unimaginable by the nation's leading automaker, suddenly hovered in the background. Suppliers, such as the powdered metals industry that makes bracket arms and a variety of other automobile components, began emptying their plants.
GKN Sinter Metals, which began a generation ago as Pennsylvania Pressed Metals, is now under foreign ownership. A local spokesman for the company declined to discuss the Emporium operations or layoffs.
This is the second great crisis Emporium has faced. In the early 1960s, Sylvania, the home-grown electronics company, shuttered an operation that once supplied radio tubes to the world. Hundreds lost jobs.
The decaying plant stretches across two blocks of the downtown. Mr. Manginell remembers standing in line at the unemployment office with his mother.
Sylvania's disappearance robbed Emporium not only of jobs, but of much of its sense of community. In the 1940s, Emporium was billed as "Girls Town" because of thousands of young women from the region who flocked to the Sylvania plant to work on radio tubes and defense guidance systems for the war effort.
"I always thought that's where I was going to work when I grew up," said Kitty Reid, who, with her husband, took over the store her in-laws run along the town's main street.
"Everybody used to work at Sylvania. When they went out we thought Emporium would die," said Linda Reid, who opened the store with her husband 20 years ago.
Much like Emporium itself, Ms. Reid's store has morphed to survive. It started as a Sears, Roebuck and Co, catalog outlet, sold appliances, and added a Radio Shack franchise inside. When the local auto parts store went out a year back, they added a NAPA counter in the back. Locals go to Reid's to ship things via UPS, buy a cell phone or have their sewing machines repaired.
The NAPA franchise, which Mike Reid oversees at a counter in the back, has been their salvation and a window into the struggle of Cameron's blue-collar class as the metals industry lays off.
"People don't buy. They want to fix their stuff up, keep 'em on the road," Mr. Reid said. "This keeps us pretty constant. Our bills are getting paid. Can't ask for anything more than that, I guess."
Cameron County is a place where "anything more" is sometimes anything at all. Sitting amid state forest lands 150 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, the county's population is just under 6,000. That small population makes it especially susceptible to economic swings. Earlier this year, it had the highest unemployment rate in Pennsylvania, slightly above 15 percent.
With almost 50 percent of its workforce employed in some aspect of the metals industry, the downward spiral of the American auto industry has gripped the region.
"I'm hoping somebody else comes in to save the day," said Kitty Reid.
Day-savers have been something of a given in this town. Sylvania was begun by local people before it wafted away into multinational status. When Sylvania vanished, a group of local men opened shops that specialized in metal fabricating, focusing on powdered metals, a process that mixes elemental or alloy powders in a die. The components are then "sintered" -- heated until they bond. The process is needed for highly precise parts and is commonly used for bushings, bearings and gears.
Tina Johns Lorson, director of the local Chamber of Commerce, isn't confident that the old formula of one big industry replacing another will prove itself again.
"The thought is out there -- if powdered metals goes, something else will come along; it always does. I'm not so sure of that. I'm afraid the world has caught up with Cameron County as far as manufacturing," she said.
As Mrs. Lorson sees it, the world caught up this way: many other regions, certainly the populous ones, have a diverse range of job options. Cameron, and Emporium especially, for close to a century relied on a major manufacturing sector. There was Sylvania, which hung on longer than many plants of its type because even into the '60s, the federal government depended on radio tubes for much of its equipment.
When locals opened up Pennsylvania Pressed Metals, the forerunner to GKN, the employment burden shifted to another single sector.
"You don't see big hotel chains. You don't see big banks, attorneys' offices, kind of the service industry jobs," Mrs. Lorson said. "Everybody relied on going and working at the plant, or the plants, and working with their hands, or tool and die makers.
"We have a very skilled labor force, but where are they going to find jobs?"
Some of them found jobs at Caldwell Corp., still another homegrown business that sprang up as Sylvania geared down. Joe Caldwell was a young Sylvania employee when he noticed the company's growth products, such as color television tubes, were being made in plants far from Emporium.
With a loan and the money he'd have used for his son's college education, he bought a $70,000 metalworking machine and set up on his own, eventually putting Caldwell Corp. inside part of the empty Sylvania plant. Today he is 71 and his company has 30 employees. They've been rotating the layoffs.
"We will all sacrifice through this period but we will do it together," he said. "If they know we're in their corner, well, the truth is, they've just been in our corner, too."
With so few jobs lying around and DuBois, the nearest larger town 50 miles away in Clearfield County, the waiting here has become frightening, and the Manginell family is feeling that fear.
"You can't take a guy that's making $19, $20 an hour with full benefits and all of a sudden just tell him that 'You no longer have a job, 30 days later you no longer have benefits,' when you have a family," Steve Manginell said. "The opportunity for me to make that kind of money again isn't going to happen."
Location has been both the curse and blessing of the Manginell family during this time. Curse: With such small population and remote location, finding another job is difficult. Blessing: With such small population and remote location, housing costs are low and he was able to burn wood to heat the place through the winter.
The mortgage, with taxes thrown in, is about $500 on a home that would fit well in tony Ligonier. When he lost the job at GKN, he moved his company 401(k) into an IRA but, during the pass-through, took out $13,000 to settle all debts save the mortgage.
The bill collectors don't call. Still, the move made him realize that economic bad times don't just close factories; they shrink savings. His account was once worth $50,000. In the market collapse of the past year, he lost $15,000 of that. With the $13,000 he used to settle debts, his retirement account sits at about $20,000.
"That's my retirement," he shrugged. "I still have some stock. I have stock in GKN. I'd imagine it isn't worth a whole lot right now."
The few businesses picking up in Emporium, Mr. Manginell said, are the bars. On one spring day, a few patrons wandered out at midday to talk about the town's dilemma, their fears for the future and their own sense of doom. None would give a name. By evening, they were all still there.
Mr. Manginell finds his comfort in family, in coaching wrestling at the local high school (the pay, he said, is nominal) and retiring to a study bedecked with animal skins and trophies from his hunting and trapping hobby.
"You have nice things and then you feel guilty that you have nice things because you don't have a job," he said.
He visited the outer perimeter of the GKN lot and, on the way, pointed out home after home that belonged to former co-workers.
"And this is it," he said, pulling into a largely empty lot that he said once overflowed. "I'd pull down into here and drive across the road and ... ." and there his voice trailed off.
A few months ago, he called a family meeting where he asked his son, who enters his senior year in high school next year, and his daughter, age 13, what they would think about leaving town should it come to that.
"It's hard to explain to my kids that we've got to uproot," he said. "They've got a kind of base here and to take that away from them -- it's heartbreaking to think I might have to do that with my children."
His eyes scanned the town's skyline and he glanced at a too-empty plant.
"At some point," he said, "maybe I think I'm in denial about the whole thing."
First Published April 19, 2009 12:00 am