A Company Town Reinvents Itself In South Bend, Ind.

Jul 5, 2012
Originally published on July 6, 2012 1:55 pm

There are two truths about South Bend, Ind. No. 1: You can't escape the influence of the University of Notre Dame. No. 2: You can't escape the ghost of Studebaker.

South Bend may be best known as the home of the Fighting Irish, but it was once the home of Studebaker automobiles. When Studebaker closed in 1963, it left a gaping hole in the town, where unemployment is at 10.4 percent, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Now, the city is working hard to create a second act for the commercial life of South Bend.

The Ghosts Of Studebaker

It's been decades since the last Studebaker rolled off the assembly line in South Bend, but longtime locals know this college town was once a company town. Carol Gleckler was 15 when Studebaker closed more than 50 years ago. She still remembers how her father reacted.

"He had tears in his eyes, worrying about how [to take care of the five kids in the family]. So many people around here worked there," she recalls. "It was tough."

Gleckler says she thinks the city today has gotten over Studebaker's closing. But Pete Buttigieg, the new mayor of South Bend, says some of the old-timers in town still talk about the event as if it were recent news.

"There are some parts of town where you'd think the closure of Studebaker was something that happened a couple of years ago, not 50," he says.

A Harvard graduate and a Rhodes scholar, Buttigieg is 30 years old, but could easily pass for 17. He's also the first South Bend mayor born after Studebaker closed.

A 'Dying City'

South Bend is like so many towns in the Midwest: If you look around you can see traces of their former glory.

Near downtown, there's a Catholic church less than a block from another Catholic church — one for the Irish and another for the Poles. Sturdy, low slung houses line the streets, and there's a tavern on almost every corner.

For many years the leaders of the town had anything but a vision for South Bend's future. The city lost about one-third of its population in the years after Studebaker. Last year, Newsweek put it on its list of America's Dying Cities.

The town spent years trying to figure what to do and how to get another Studebaker-type company to fill the hole. Meanwhile, old factory buildings took up blocks and blocks of real estate as a constant reminder of what the town had lost.

An Edge In The Data Economy

In recent years, some of Studebaker's former assembly plants have been torn down, and one former site on the company's old grounds has been renamed Ignition Park. It's currently an empty lot that Buttigieg hopes will transform into a business park for high-tech manufacturing. For now, Ignition Park's first confirmed tenant is a data center.

Buttigieg says all the railroads and other infrastructure left over from Studebaker gives South Bend an edge over other wannabe tech cities.

"Believe it or not, being a very cold place in the middle of the country next to some old rail lines is very beneficial in the data economy, just as it was in the car economy," he explains. He says South Bend's mild climate can help with cooling off data centers. The city also has advantages with its relatively cheap utility costs and close proximity to fiber optic lines that run along old highway and railway right-of-ways.

Selling South Bend And Notre Dame

Under Buttigieg's predecessor, the city paid for the demolition of the factory buildings with a mix of bonds and federal money for cleaning up toxic waste sites. City leaders hope businesses will spin off from research at the University of Notre Dame and end up in Ignition Park and other new business parks. So far, the university, which for decades hasn't been very engaged in the life of the city, has gotten involved.

One of the things that's changed in South Bend is the city's relationship to the Fighting Irish. The town-and-gown tension that's common in so many college towns was especially evident in South Bend. In the last decade, that's begun to change.

The leaders of Notre Dame, the city's largest employer, have made a commitment to the town. John Affleck-Graves, who became Notre Dame's executive vice president in 2004, says the school is committed to the health and success of South Bend. "What's good for South Bend is good for Notre Dame," he says.

Mayor Buttigieg says the changes in town wouldn't be possible without the support of the school. He says Notre Dame realized it's not just competing with other universities but also other university towns. "You've got these academic rock stars. They could live anywhere they want to in the world. And if the university wants them to come here, they're not just selling Notre Dame, they're selling South Bend," Buttigieg says.

From Rail Station To Tech Center

South Bend's old railroad station has also been re-purposed to join the data economy. Now known as the Union Station Technology Center, the building houses tech companies, as well as Notre Dame's computers.

Nick Easley, director of strategic initiatives for the center, says it would surprise most South Bend residents that technology has taken over the town landmark.

"When people [in South Bend] say Union Station, it's where they held their prom," Easley says. "It has nothing to do with this sleepy multimillion-dollar business under the building."

The building's owner, Kevin Smith, hopes to eventually expand into the old Studebaker headquarters next door. He says there's no reason that South Bend cannot bring outsourced jobs to town. Smith recently set up a network for Notre Dame researchers to receive data from the CERN laboratory in Geneva and do analysis in South Bend.

"This just shows how the world has just collapsed," he says.

Recovering From An Economic Disaster

Buttigieg says he understands that "the economic equivalent of a tornado" went through his town and that he has to treat what happened to South Bend like the disaster it was.

"You look at some of these buildings, and it literally looks like a bomb went off or like a natural disaster happened," he says. "Getting past that legacy is not going to be easy, and it's not going to be obvious."

The mayor of South Bend says the good thing is that the worst that could've happened to South Bend already happened 50 years ago.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. This week, the NPR Cities Project is under way.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY AMBIENCE AND MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Today we go to South Bend, Indiana, the home of Notre Dame and the Fighting Irish.

BLOCK: South Bend also has 10 percent unemployment with an economy that's a far cry from when it was the proud headquarters of Studebaker automobiles.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's the big, new Studebaker. What makes Studebaker the standout car in the low price field? Craftsmanship with a flair...

BLOCK: It's been decades since the last Studebaker rolled off the assembly line in South Bend.

SIEGEL: NPR's Sonari Glinton went on a search to find out what can happen to a town years after its number one employer goes away.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: I'm standing outside looking up at the old massive headquarters of the Studebaker Corporation. It doesn't matter, though, if I were here or anywhere else in South Bend; there's almost no place in town where you can escape the ghost of Studebaker, the company that made its home here for 115 years.

I met Carol Gleckler at a tavern. She was 15 when the plants closed almost 50 years ago.

CAROL GLECKLER: I could remember my dad, you know, and he was in the service. And, you know, he had tears in his eyes worrying about how he was going to have - you know, there was five of us kids in the family. And so many people around here worked there. You know, that's all it was. And yeah, it was tough.

GLINTON: When did the city get over it? I mean, do you think the city is over it now?

GLECKLER: Yeah, I think so.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: Some of the old-timers talk about it like it just happened. That's one of the amazing things. I mean, there's some parts of town where you would think that the closure of Studebaker was something that happened a couple years ago, not 50.

GLINTON: Pete Buttigieg is the new mayor of South Bend. I met him in his 14th floor office in the county city building.

How old are you? You don't look like you're old enough to be the mayor of anything.

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, we think I'm America's youngest mayor of a city that's over a hundred thousand people. I'm 30. I was 29 when I took office.

GLINTON: Buttigieg is a Harvard grad, a Rhodes scholar. He could easily pass for 17. He's the first South Bend mayor born after Studebaker closed, and it's his biggest challenge, as he shows me the city from his office window.

BUTTIGIEG: So, what you see there is the last of the great Studebaker buildings. That big one, 800,000 square feet and arguably too expensive to even blow up, and it's going to have new life now.

Yeah, where else can you have a house with a yard?

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR BEEPING)

GLINTON: The mayor and I decided to go for a drive around town. South Bend is like so many towns in the Midwest: If you look around you can see traces of their former glory. Near downtown here, there's a Catholic church that's essentially across the street from another Catholic church; St. Patrick's for the Irish, St. Hedwig's for the Poles. There's sturdy, low-slung houses and a tavern on almost every corner.

BUTTIGIEG: Try to show you Joe's Tavern. It's thought of as kind of old-fashioned, but the hipsters have discovered it.

GLINTON: I've got to say, you probably have to be really hip to live in South Bend.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTTIGIEG: We're the tip of the spear, man.

(LAUGHTER)

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, it takes a little bit of vision to see what South Bend has to offer.

GLINTON: For many years, the leaders of the town had anything but vision. South Bend lost about a third of its population in the years after Studebaker. Just last year, Newsweek put South Bend on its list of America's Dying Cities. The town spent decades trying to figure out what to do. And the old factory buildings took up block after block after block. They were a magnet for crime, a depressing reminder of what the town had lost.

But very slowly - I mean, very slowly - the city has begun to change. The mayor drives me to an empty lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR BEEPING)

BUTTIGIEG: It's acres and acres, and it could be millions of square feet.

GLINTON: So, what was here before?

BUTTIGIEG: A number of assembly buildings, mostly connected to the Studebaker plant, stood here. And they gradually fell apart over the last 50 years. So now it's been cleared. You got a big, green field that we're calling Ignition Park. And our first confirmed tenant here is going to be a data center.

GLINTON: A data center, you know, server farms on the very ground where Studebaker factories stood. Buttigieg says what gives South Bend the edge over other wannabe tech cities is all the infrastructure that's left over from Studebaker, like the railroads. The cables that carry the Internet, they run along railroad lines.

BUTTIGIEG: For one thing, you want to be some place that's very cold because it's so expensive to cool off the machines. Secondly, you want to be some place with cheap power, and our utilities are very competitive. And third, it helps to be close to those old fiber optic lines that run along the old highway and railway right-of-ways.

So, believe it or not, being a very cold place in the middle of the country next to some old rail lines is very beneficial in the data economy, just as it was in the car economy.

GLINTON: Under his predecessor, the city paid for the demolition of the factory buildings. They used a mix of bonds and federal money for cleaning up toxic waste sites. The hope is, in this park and others, businesses will spin off from research at Notre Dame. And the university, which for decades hasn't been engaged in the life of the city, has gotten involved.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)

NICK EASLEY: So really, in short, this is cloud computing back to Earth. This is the cloud. You're in the cloud right now.

GLINTON: I met up with Nick Easley and Kevin Smith at the Union Station Technology Center. This used to be the town's old railroad station. Smith turned it into a home for tech companies. Notre Dame's computers are here, for instance. Now, Smith is hoping to expand into the old Studebaker headquarters next door.

Kevin Smith says when we think of globalization, we think of jobs going overseas. But he says there's no reason that towns like South Bend can't bring jobs here.

KEVIN SMITH: A good way to put it is Notre Dame was trying to do research in CERN, Switzerland where they have that big supercomputer - or supercollider. I hooked up a network so they could bring the data back here to South Bend, Indiana to do the analysis. So this just shows how the world has just collapsed.

GLINTON: All of this is a big gamble, the kind of thing South Bend hasn't tried in the last 50 years.

BUTTIGIEG: So I find a new shortcut.

GLINTON: Back on my drive with Mayor Buttigieg, he says he has to treat what happened to South Bend like the disaster it was.

BUTTIGIEG: The economic equivalent of a tornado did go through town. And it's not just in a symbolic way. It's in a physical way. You look at some of these buildings, and it literally looks like a bomb went off or like a natural disaster happened. So, you know, getting past that legacy - and if I don't I'll be in trouble - getting past that legacy is not going to be easy, and it's not going to be obvious.

GLINTON: South Bend's story is a story of many American cities. In South Bend, there was Studebaker. In Flint, Michigan it was General Motors. The mayor of South Bend says the good thing is that the worst that could have happened to South Bend already happened 50 years ago.

At the corner of Bronson and Lafayette in South Bend, Sonari Glinton for the NPR Cities Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.