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Indiana town builds hope on machinery

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Kai Ryssdal: Our colleagues at American RadioWorks have been putting together a documentary about the city of Muncie, Ind. About how it’s been completely flattened by this recession and by the loss of virtually all of its old-line manufacturing jobs.

But they also told us about a new piece of machinery that Muncie’s counting on to help bring the city at least part of the way back. It sounded almost like a riddle when they told us about it. It’s as big as a Volkswagen Bug they said, with the precision of a Swiss watch. So a couple of weeks ago I went to Muncie to see what I could find.

At the county economic development office I met Jacopo Tozzi. He’s the U.S. managing director for the Italian heavy-equipment maker Brevini.

JACOPO TOZZI: It weighs between 20 and 30 tons, which is very technically very complicated. It’s not to make any noise, has to resist 20 years. So it’s the top of mechanical industry in the world at moment.

It’s a gear box for those huge wind turbines that are part of the future of green energy. Brevini’s setting up a factory to make those cutting-edge gearboxes right here in Muncie.

TOZZI: We are going to hire people with mechanical skills.

Which is part of the reason why the company chose this city.

TOZZI: Unfortunately there was also a plant which closed in Muncie so we can find people with competence here.

RYSSDAL: So in a way, the economic problems of Muncie gave you an opportunity?


Some of the people who are looking for those Brevini manufacturing jobs used to work here at this Borg Warner factory. It’s huge, stretches half a mile along the road here. There were 3000 people making transmissions for Ford and General Motors until a couple of years ago. Thing is, there aren’t too many cars and trucks parked in front because almost nobody works inside any more.

Workers here at the Borg Warner plant and at a Chevy factory across town used to belong to the United Autoworkers Union. You can still find some of them hanging out at the union hall, even though their local went out of business.

Larry TOOLE: I’ve already filled an online application and sent my resume in.

Larry Toole was an officer in UAW local 287. He’s 55. And he’s hoping Brevini recognizes what he has to offer.

TOOLE: Well, because of my qualifications, my skills and my training and education. I worked in manufacturing for 30 years, repaired machines, built tools and dies and fixtures. And I’d be an asset to them for all the knowledge and training I got from Borg Warner.

Jacopo Tozzi, the U.S. rep for Brevini, says Larry Toole is the kind of worker they’re looking for. Problem is, the unemployment rate in Muncie is pushing 11 percent, which means there are thousands of people just as qualified as Larry Toole. And they’re all waiting for 450 production jobs that aren’t even scheduled to come on line until 2011.

Officials up and down Indiana are hoping Brevini and companies like it can help turn the state’s industrial base into a force in green energy or anything, really, that’ll help as the economic ground changes underneath them once again.

You can hear more about how the Great Recession has changed Muncie in an American Radioworks documentary called “Hard Times in Middletown.” It’s on public radio stations across the country.

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