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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Liu

Conclusion : The Benefit of Manufacturing on Rural Communities in America

The presence of a manufacturing sector in a rural community can provide an unmatched economic foundation.

A manufacturing facility in Martinsville Patriot Industrial Park.

Overview of Re-shoring Efforts

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of the United States supply chain. Businesses, lacking access to imported goods, were forced to find domestic supplies. To meet the increased demand for US-made goods, American factories sprung up. When the pandemic waned, businesses did not return to relying on foreign, low-wage labor. Instead, they realized the value of having an accessible supply chain, which involved forming workforces through local talent pipelines.

State of the Rust Belt

Formed from the first Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 19th century, the manufacturing sector has played an integral role in the economic prowess of the United States. The nation’s industrial cores—cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh—churned with facilities that produced steel and automobiles. Coal towns in the Appalachian region became immigration hotspots due to the well-paying jobs in the mines. However, with economic and population decline in the 1950s, the once-thriving manufacturing and mining hubs in the Rust Belt were left ridden with extreme poverty, economic isolation, and rampant drug epidemics.

However, there is hope for the Rust Belt. Many communities in the region are trying to attract manufacturing corporations to establish new facilities nearby and subsequently strengthen the local and state-wide economy. The efforts are succeeding—for instance, a major new chip factory is being constructed in Ohio.

State of the Appalachia

The Appalachian region is composed of 13 states and stretches from Mississippi to Maine, resting along the Appalachian Mountain range. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), one-quarter of the region’s 423 counties are rural. In the 1960s, confronted with the reality that the Appalachian communities were economically disadvantaged, then-President John F. Kennedy set out to ensure that “the zip codes of Appalachia’s residents [would] not define their destinies.”

Government-backed efforts by the ARC have proven effective in improving the region’s economy, population count, and education systems. Since the founding of ARC, the region’s poverty rate has been reduced by more than half. 91% of the Appalachian Highway System has been completed, the proportion of adult residents to all residents in the region has nearly tripled, and the region’s high-school graduation rate has almost reached the nationwide average.

State of Rural Areas

Entering my research, I expected “rural” communities to be economically isolated. However, my conversations with interviewees who worked in rural settings highlighted that the economies of rural communities in various corners of America can hold big stakes in the performance of greater state-wide economies.

A community’s degree of economic power and access to capital does not necessarily correlate with its population size. Manistee County, Michigan, which sits along the Manistee River, is an example. Home to only 25,000 residents county-wide, the place is rich with natural resources, allowing the manufacturing sector to remain prosperous. Today, large ferries and ships still transport coal and other resources throughout the county. Ms. Rodriguez of the Launch Manistee Network stated that the county is unique for its lingering secondary sector. For all of its industries, Manistee County constantly receives an inflow and outflow of non-residents, establishing itself as a hub in the Northwest Michigan economy.

A community’s degree of economic power and access to capital does not necessarily correlate with its population size.

Particularly in the Rust Belt, the geographic divide between urban and rural areas is thin, proving that not all rural communities exist in isolated expanses. Large-scale manufacturing activity and localized industry can exist just miles apart. For example, each of the three adjacent counties in Wisconsin that the Gateway Technical College serves has “a unique demographic and population base in history as it relates to advanced manufacturing.” Racine County and Kenosha County are urban, housing several major manufacturing corporations such as Insinkerator, S.E. Johnson corporation, Snap-on Tools, Modine Corporation, and Jockey International. Both counties border Walworth County, which is relatively rural and sustained through farming and specialized industry such as micro-machining.

Geographically secluded rural communities can still attract major manufacturing corporations and contribute to the productivity of the national economy. Martinsville, Virginia, is relatively inaccessible by any mode of transportation, and the roads leading into the community run for miles without passing any sign of human settlement. Martinsville’s town center is extremely small, containing a few restaurants and convenience stores. Although it appears quiet, the community is a hidden industrial powerhouse. The facilities of several major manufacturers sit in secluded corners, and a right turn onto Beaver Creek Drive leads to the city’s 1,000-acre Patriot industrial park, which hosts facilities for corporations such as Nautica, Monogram Food Solutions, and Howmet Aerospace.

It is the rural settings of communities like Manistee County and Martinsville that help them maintain long-term manufacturing presences. Rural manufacturers experience more stability and staying power than urban manufacturers because they function as pillars of the community: “they have a sense of responsibility to the community, and they stick around a little longer” (Nico Thomas, NIST). In Martinsville, I observed that the most well-kept buildings belonged to manufacturing corporations, attesting to the community’s substantial investment in the livelihood of its manufacturing sector. If endowed with adequate resources, rural manufacturers can also expand more than urban manufacturers because of their access to abundant land. A single corporation, for example, can construct all of its facilities (e.g., main manufacturing plant, shipping plant) within one perimeter, increasing the efficiency of its operations and keeping each link in its supply chain (e.g., product development, marketing, operations, distribution, finance, and customer service) extremely accessible.

A single corporation, for example, can construct all of its facilities within one perimeter, increasing the efficiency of its operations and keeping each link in its supply chain extremely accessible.

All the institutions I studied operate in manufacturing-based communities, meaning that my observations about rural regions were made from an exclusive set of case studies. Therefore, it is also important to consider how other types of rural communities across America look. Many are geographically remote and lack a core economic base—I believe that a community’s manufacturing presence automatically leverages its local economy and its connectedness to external economies.

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