“Starlight Express,” the musical in which actors on roller skates portray toy steam trains, has been running in Bochum, in northwest Germany, for 25 years. It is the world’s longest-running musical production.
Perhaps it’s because Bochum was once a real locomotive of the German economy — but now Bochum is earning a more dubious distinction. When General Motors shuts its three Opel-brand car plants in the city next year, it will be the first major car factory closure in Germany since the World War II.
“We are very angry about it,” says local resident Christophe Schweitzer. “A great number of people will become poor. Not only the 3,500 Opel workers, but people indirectly connected with the General Motors plants. Unemployment will rise. Small shops will close. It will be a great disaster.”
Many worry that with unemployment already above 10 percent in the region, the closure of the factory will put Bochum closer to economic ruin.
“Look at Detroit,” says Milan Sommer, a 23 year-old trainee at one of the plants. “It’s what could happen to our city here. Detroit is a warning for Bochum.”
There is no such pessimism at City Hall. City spokesman Tim Froehlich* says that since coalmining and steelmaking began to decline in the 1970s and 1980s, Bochum has been forging a non-industrial future and it won’t be devastated by the General Motors closure.
“Bochum will not be a second Detroit,” Froehlich says. “The closure will affect our economy but not to a threatening extent.”
For instance, the city says it has diversified into health care, internet security and education. Bochum has seven universities with 50,000 students.
Tourism is big, too. There’s a planetarium, a zoo and don’t forget the “Starlight Express.”
“Fourteen million people have seen this beautiful musical,” says Mario Schiefelbein, Bochum’s tourism chief. “I’m pretty sure there are a couple more million who will want to see Starlight Express.”
Hitching a ride on a foreign musical is hardly a substitute for making cars, however.
“It’s perceived rather as a failure of Opel and its American parent GM,” says economist Gustav Horn, who thinks it won’t reflect too poorly on the German auot manfuacturing sector. “[Opel and GM] concentrated too much on the European market where things are pretty bad with the Euro crisis.
“Much of the German car industry focused its export effort in high growth markets — China, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia — and they’re doing very well,” Horn says.
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