By SHARON COHEN, Associated Press
KOKOMO, Ind. (AP) — Back in this town's darkest days, Jeff Shrock, a third-generation autoworker, would cruise down the streets where he grew up, past the foreclosed homes and four giant Chrysler factories, knowing their future — and his job — were in jeopardy. He sometimes imagined the worst.
"I wondered what would happen five, six years down the road when the weeds were growing in parking lots and the plants had their windows broken out," he says. "What would the community look like then?"
These were not far-fetched fears. Kokomo had made an ignominious Forbes list of fastest-dying communities in America. The recession and collapse of the U.S. auto industry had battered the town. Three major employers — Chrysler, General Motors and Delphi, an auto parts supplier — had filed for bankruptcy. Hundreds of workers were laid off. Unemployment briefly topped 20 percent.
Shrock, who'd risen from Chrysler machine operator to a United Auto Workers international representative, was worried. It wasn't just 4,000 Chrysler workers. He was also thinking about some 10,000 auto retirees in the county and their pensions.
During that tense first half of 2009, Shrock wondered if the automakers — and his town — would endure. The Obama administration had pumped in more than $60 billion to fund GM and Chrysler's bankruptcies, but there were no guarantees.
"I had a lot of personal doubts, but whenever I walked out the door, I never showed that," Shrock says. "People had enough burden on them already, not knowing if they were going to have a job. They had mortgages. They had kids in school. They had car payments. They had credit cards. The last thing I wanted in their mind was this was not going to work."
Flash forward. The U.S. auto industry has staged an amazing comeback, and the town's largest employer, Chrysler, has pledged to invest nearly $1.3 billion into its plants here, added about 1,000 workers and helped boost Kokomo's fortunes — it was honored in 2011 by the state chamber of commerce as Community of the Year.
But the resurrection of U.S. automakers has done little to resolve a deep political divide over the bailout. Democrats, led by President Barack Obama, call it an undeniable success. The Republican presidential candidates, most notably Mitt Romney, condemn it as government meddling, both unfair and unnecessary, and even some Indiana politicians agree.
To many folks in Kokomo, though, the political debate seems disconnected from this reality: Kokomo survives.
Detroit is America's car capital, but Kokomo has its own proud role in auto history.
It started in 1894 when Elwood Haynes, an enterprising inventor with a thick mustache and Chaplinesque bowler, towed his gas-powered carriage to a winding road on the southeast edge of town called Pumpkinvine Pike. He drove off, puttering along at 7 mph — and becoming one of the early auto pioneers.
That road test, though, was just one of many auto distinctions for this "City of Firsts." Among them: First carburetor, first push-button car radio, first pneumatic tire.
More than a century later, Kokomo had cemented its reputation as a car city. Though Chrysler and GM have reduced their workforce in Kokomo over the years, the two companies and suppliers account for more than 20 percent of all jobs, and the ripple effect is many times that.
It's the kind of town where family reunions can be measured in how many generations of fathers, brothers and sons toiled on a Chrysler or GM line (or both). It's also a community where workers live with uncertainty. Shrock still remembers his father wondering if he'd have a check to cash in '79 when Chrysler was drowning, and then-CEO Leo Iacocca begged the federal government for help.
More than 30 years later, he was a silver-haired father himself, he and the Chrysler workers were facing a similar situation — and Kokomo still was at the mercy of the auto economy.
The threat of shuttered plants, a mass exodus and blight — a familiar site among aging steel and auto communities across the Midwest — loomed large.
A Brookings Institution report said the demise of all auto-related jobs could result in the staggering loss of more than half of all area employment.