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Racine mayor looks for ways to bring down unemployment

An aerial view of Racine Harbor in Racine, Wis.

Kai Ryssdal: There's a big meeting of mayors in Baltimore, Md., today. It's the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to be precise. They're meeting with the president to talk economy -- what they're doing to create more jobs and get the economy going. A new report the mayors commissioned shows metropolitan areas account for about 86 percent of all the jobs we have. And that cities aren't creating enough jobs fast enough. John Dickert is the mayor of Racine, Wis. The report says his city's employment level won't get back where employment it was before the recession 'til 2015. Mr. Mayor, good to have you with us.

John Dickert: Thank you.

Ryssdal: What's your sense -- from the racing perspective, if you will -- of the report that came out of the conference this morning?

Dickert: Well, we're seen as a steel town, a heavy industrial manufacturing town. We've seen pretty much the brunt end of this for decades. We're seen as either being first or second employment in the state of Wisconsin for almost 20 years. You're a city that used to have tens of thousands of jobs in manufacturing and light industrial now all fallen away to where the plants where those jobs were don't even exist anymore. So we went from -- from when I first started two years ago -- we had 17.5 percent unemployment. We've been working with companies and trying to create a good opportunity for growth in Racine. We had it down as low as 12.8 about a month ago and it dipped back up after the governor's budget came through to about 13 or 14 [percent].

Ryssdal: So when you go out to Main Street in Racine and you have breakfast with constituents there, what are they saying? What's the mood about the economy?

Dickert: Well I think the mood is cautious. I've toured 31 businesses in my city and most of the manufacturing that I've talked to has either hired back or is about to hire back everyone that they've let go over the last two years. However, they are not going to be bringing back any more than they have to and that is because of the cautious nature, I think, of the country right now.

Ryssdal: Along those lines, are you seeing some of the really depressing parts of long-term unemployment? Are you seeing young people leaving, finding new jobs, and not coming back? That kind of thing.

Dickert: Not necessarily. What I'm seeing is what every mayor deals with every day is when somebody comes up to you and says, "Mayor, do you have a job? You know, I used to be a middle class, $70,000-a-year wage earner and now I've got nothing. I've been looking for a year and a half and there's nothing there." That's the difficulty. So what we do in Racine -- and one of the reasons our unemployment has dipped -- is because we've been working with industries to find out, first of all, how we can make it easy for them to expand and grow and more importantly, how we can create those partnerships to grow.

Ryssdal: Give me the sales pitch. When you go to try to get a company to establish a planet or a manufacturing center, whatever it is in Racine, what do you tell them?

Dickert: Well, I meet with about three or four a week. And what I tell them is, first of all, what can we do to get you here. What's the asset that we have that is most valuable to you? More importantly, what we do is we wrap all of our plans around each individual company. There is no cookie-cutter approach anymore to economic development. We understand that the marketplace demands that they will be taking what we can give them and then going out to another county, another state or another country and kind of bidding us out against each other. But at the same, we have assets that I think a lot of communities would love to have, which is the Great Lake, clean beaches, beautiful quality of life, and centrally located with a good market. So we try to really wrap our packages around each company and some of these projects work and some of them don't, but we keep trying and I'm never going to stop trying until I get that unemployment down.

Ryssdal: John Dickert, the mayor of Racine, Wis. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for your time.

Dickert: Thank you very much, it's great talking to you today.

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