Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Next Step : A Summit of Citizens : 'It's hard to be a philanthropist if you're struggling to feed your own kids,' says mayor of troubled steel town.

March 30, 1993|MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANTON, Ohio — Two countries. Two leaders. Two sets of urgent national priorities.

In Vancouver, Canada, this weekend, the presidents of Russia and the United States are to meet, with emergency support for Russia the chief item on their agenda.

But what do their citizens think? Should Americans give more aid? Will it do Russians much good?

Can it buy both peoples a better future?

Here are dispatches from the countries' heartlands, from towns as different as classical ballet and a quarterback sneak, yet also similar in many ways.

*

Around these parts, a conversation doesn't take very long before it comes down to one of three subjects: football, steelmaking or what "all those crooks in Washington" are cooking up to take more from honest folks in the way of taxes.

When it comes to money, "people around here are pretty conservative," says Brenda Jarvis, 33, a divorced mother of two who tends bar at Benders Taproom, a downtown eatery that, save for the addition of a stuffed sailfish, hasn't changed much since the day it first began serving the carriage crowd in 1902. "Round here, folks count their pennies and know better than to spend what they don't have."

Frugality is one of the enduring values--two others being a strong work ethic and a mom-and-apple-pie sense of patriotism--that the hardy Pennsylvania Dutch and European immigrants who settled here more than 100 years ago bequeathed to their descendants in this patch of northeastern Ohio.

In these gently rolling hills, dotted now with factories, suburban malls, VFWs and Rotary Clubs, can be found what the politicians back in Washington, in their endless speeches, often refer to as the "heartland" of America. And while there are unmistakable signs that the recovery is finally under way here, there is also no escaping the obvious fact that, for a long time now, the heart has been bleeding.

"We've been through a long period of decline," concedes Mayor Richard Watkins, a Republican who three years ago capitalized on widespread dissatisfaction with Canton's inner-city decay to handily defeat longtime Democratic incumbent Sam Purses. "In the last 20 years, we've witnessed a flight of capital from the city that only now are we beginning to stem."

Canton, which has a sister-city relationship with Krasnodar, Russia, and may soon establish one with Klin, is also beginning to look for economic opportunities outside its--and the nation's--borders. One local firm, Galt Alloys, has already done $500,000 worth of barter business with Russia and is negotiating for more. "There are a lot of opportunities for Canton and Russia to trade equipment and training in exchange for raw materials," Watkins said.

The city has a famous son--President William McKinley--and a claim to fame as the cradle of pro football. The American Professional Football Assn., forerunner of the National Football League, was formed in Ray Hay's downtown garage, and football has been a consuming passion ever since the 1920s, when a young man named Jim Thorpe played for the Canton Bulldogs.

But if a passion for football runs in the blood, it is steel that constitutes the flesh and bones of this once-thriving manufacturing hub of 86,000 people in the center of Stark County. "Steel is Canton and Canton is steel. Simple as that," says R.K. Brady, a retired police captain who now holds court most weekday afternoons at the far end of Benders bar. "Steel was what built this place and steel is what keeps it alive today."

When the steel industry stumbled in the late 1970s, Canton fell with it, and over the next decade it lost 17,000 jobs and 26% of its manufacturing base. With the jobs went the people; Canton's population, though steady in recent years, is nearly 20% lower than what it was 20 years ago. And with the people went the retail outlets, which moved to the suburbs and left the downtown area looking eerily like a ghost town.

Finally, says the mayor, all this is starting to change. A new downtown mall is planned, and commercial space is being renovated as businesses are enticed back by incentives from the city. And the Football Hall of Fame--still the jewel in Canton's tarnished crown--has just announced plans for an $8-million expansion funded jointly by the NFL and a consortium of local businesses.

Local businessmen share the mayor's optimism. "Steel is still this area's base business, and, although we've been through some rough times, we see business picking up," said Howard McGuirk, president of Galt Alloys, a supplier of specialty metals to the steel industry.

Michael Hanke, editor of the local newspaper, the Repository, says his advertising revenues have increased by 6% for the second year running and adds that the paper has just completed a $40-million renovation of its downtown offices--"something we would never have done if we thought this economy was going belly up."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|