Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Last one to leave Jackson, turn out the lights

Ask anyone what they've heard about Jackson, MI, and the answer is the same.

The prison. The largest in the U.S. That's what we're known for.

Soa big surprise came this morning when we all learned that the prison is closing.

Almost 500 jobs lost. Poof. Just like that.

And it's not the only bad news to hit Jackson in the past year or so. Plant after plant, company after company, shutting its doors and hundreds of people left out in the cold.

Welcome to the Rust Belt, folks. Hope you like service jobs.

There used to be a time when Jackson was a bustling place, a kind of mini-Detroit as far as auto manufacturing went. Because we were nestled along the old Sauk Trail, where now sits the main highway between Motown and Chicago, I-94, we were in a prime spot to make all the parts that helped to make vehicles.

Starting in the '80s, however, with the closing of the big Goodyear plant (one of the founding companies of the place I work), the manufacturing base of the community has steadily declined. Today, our biggest employer is Foote Hospital.

The second used to be the prison.

My grandma keeps telling me that Jackson has been a dying town since the Progress Place movement ruined the downtown, and she may be right. While the downtown has seen a bit of a pickup, the constant closings of major industries is crippling growth. Where do we go from here?

Of course the prison closing is a symptom of the state's budget fiasco, which could be a symptom of the loss of manufacturing jobs, and so on, on down the line of blame. And we're certainly not the only community to face such woes; Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois towns have been showing signs of wear for years.

I've always felt there's nothing spectacular about Jackson - nothing that I could say "that's what keeps me here" - but it's a nice place to live, and I've called it home all my life. My family is here, a lot of my friends are here, and I've found a good job that I enjoy doing. Plus Jackson is close enough to other fun spots, like Ann Arbor, Detroit, Windsor, Kalamazoo, and even Chicago.

But Jackson, and Michigan as a whole, may be going the way of the dinosaur if this kind of job-loss continues. Who wants the only major employer in town to be a hospital? Or Meijer? Or a utility?

If anything, it'll be folks like me, and Suzanne, and Cassandra - if we do stick around - who will have to turn this place into somewhere worth living. Usually kids graduate high school and never look back (which makes me question my own wisdom, now that I think about it). That has to change.

As does Jackson's willingness to change, because it's some of the older folks around here, the ones who high-tail it to Florida every year, who are the most resistant.

So here's to Jackson: home of the coney, the place that almost got the University of Michigan, the Cascades, MIS, a still-functioning train station, and a serious jobs-and-optimism problem.

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