“At least there's still Lordstown.”
That was a common refrain around the Mahoning Valley, an area of Northeast Ohio that includes historic manufacturing centers like Warren, Youngstown, and Lordstown, home to what was once the largest car manufacturing facility on the planet.
But after the steel mills shuttered in 1977, there was a single company keeping the Valley afloat: General Motors. The plant, home of the Chevy Cruz sedan, became the largest employer in the Valley, with its taxes making up 40 percent of the town budget.
Then word came down from GM on November 26, 2018, that Lordstown Assembly would be one of five North American plants placed in "unallocated" status, a product-less plant that could theoretically be re-opened in the future. People started to lose their jobs, a now familiar—if always gut-wrenching—story in the annals of rust-belt malaise.
But just as lifelong union workers were faced with peril, schools also started to lose students as parents left the Valley. Now the next generation of Lordstown is stuck watching their town hemorrhage both funding and community, wondering where to go next. “We've had a lot of friends' families who've left,” Alexis Phillips, 18, a senior at Lordstown High School, said. “I don't think a lot of people were ready for it.”
Without GM, both Lordstown and the surrounding Trumbull County will lose a major draw to the region. According to Census data, this year, the county dropped to less than 200,000 people for the first time since the 1950s. The population has been steadily declining since the 1980s, and the median income of $45,382 is already at least $10,000 less than the rest of the country.
That troubling trend isn't lost on Terry Armstrong, the superintendent of the Lordstown School District. Armstrong said since the plant closed, students have asked him and the high school principal if the school district would close, too. It’s not a far reach: last year, GM’s property taxes funded 10 percent of the Lordstown Local School District's $8 million budget.
Armstrong said he anticipated losing at least 20 to 25 students—which is significant for a school district of only 528—and the exodus of GM workers from the surrounding regions could impact the school's open enrollment numbers as well.
The impacts are already underway. Back in June 2018, when the plant's second shift was laid off, the district eliminated pay-to-play fees for sports programs and removed student program fees that might have kept less fortunate students from taking advantage of the school's offerings. Since the plant closed, Armstrong said the school has increased the stock at its food pantry to help students whose families struggle providing meals.
He looked to nearby Ontario, Ohio, which had gone through a similar transition, to prepare. “GM closed a plant in Ontario [Ohio] a decade ago, so I asked [school district officials] how it impacted them. The number of students they had that were eligible for free or reduced lunches jumped from 7 percent to 40 percent as a result,” Armstrong said. He said 30 percent of the students in his district are already eligible for free lunches.
But he’s in a tough position. Though he's a supporter of local campaigns to get the plant re-opened, Armstrong will be responsible for keeping the school district afloat whether industry returns to Lordstown or not. Until the ultimate fate of the plant is decided later this year, when labor unions try to negotiate a new contract, Armstrong said, he'll continue to encourage the staff and students who stay in the Valley.
Lordstown Mayor Arno Hill is optimistic. “If GM does leave, the plant can be repurposed. Maybe it’ll be a joint venture, who knows. Look at Dayton, look at other places that have lost a GM plant or other large employer. They’ve survived. We’ll survive. It may be a couple of lean years,” Hill said. “We’re in one of the most pronounced periods in Lordstown history right now, and I’m saying ‘which way do we go?’ and trying to steer it.”
"People don't want to leave."
But Armstrong isn’t waiting: he launched the "Lordstown STRONG" initiative to assure the students that the school wasn't going anywhere. Since the school district has implemented the initiative, they’ve saved just over $200,000 through job attrition and reassignment and sharing services with other local school districts, he said. But that kind of “savings” also resulted from people leaving their jobs.
"I own a [Chevy] Cruze, I love this town. The one good thing this has shown is that no one wants to leave," Armstrong said. "Everyone's leaving for a job because they need to, but no one wants to, they want to be here in the Valley and I think it says something about the Valley and about the culture. People don't want to leave."
For the students of Lordstown, the plant closure means losing community, and rethinking their own career steps.
Colin Himes, 18, is a senior at Lordstown High School. He’ll be leaving the village at the end of the summer to play soccer at Hiram College, a little less than 30 miles west of Lordstown. But his father won’t be around to see his games. “My dad was on the final shift and then he ended up transferring,” Himes said. “When the plant started cutting shifts we kind of saw this coming. We knew eventually it'd get to it, but it was sudden and it was overwhelming.”
Himes and Phillips will spend their final summer before college without one or both of their parents around. Phillips’ mother accepted a transfer to work at a plant in Arlington, Texas. Later this year her mother, father, and little brother will relocate to Texas, leaving Phillips to start her freshman year at the University of Akron without the nearby safety net she thought she’d have.
“My mom was really upset about it. She didn't want to move. No one wanted to move. I have a younger brother who goes to school here. I'm graduating this year, so it's not as big of a deal for me, but he's still young and he didn't want to leave,” she said. “We just remodeled our house too, so everyone wanted to stay.”
Even if the plant stayed open, neither of the students planned on staying in the village. Though opportunities outside of GM do exist in the area—such as Cassens Transport, where Phillips’ father works as a truck driver—years of insecurity over the plant’s longevity have prompted many Lordstown students to pursue careers away from the company. In the past couple of years, at least half of local students pursued college after high school.
“My dad went to college for a little bit but then left and went to the plant. He always encouraged me to have a backup plan, so he wanted me to go to college and get an education just to make sure stuff like what happened at the plant doesn't happen to me one day,” Himes said.
Shortly after the announcement that GM would close Lordstown Assembly, outgoing Governor John Kasich tweeted at Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk, asking him to open a plant of his own in the village. Musk tweeted back a less than promising "I'll consider it."
Kasich's pitch isn't the only long-shot. An editorial at the local Tribune Chronicle newspaper suggested that Amazon open a headquarters in Lordstown following the company's February decision to abandon plans for an “HQ2” facility in New York City.
Even if Musk or Jeff Bezos took over the abandoned facility, it may not matter for Lordstown’s younger generation. GM has left them with a deep mistrust of big corporations, and the prospect of repeating history under a different banner isn’t likely to draw them back to the village. “GM is a huge corporation and it made it very real that they're really just there for their profit. They don't really think about our families or like their employees,” Himes said.
Himes, Phillips and many of their peers grew up believing there was virtue in buying American-made products—that by supporting companies who made their products in the U.S., they were supporting men and women like their parents. But even that belief has been eroded by the closure.
“When I was growing up my family was all about buying American because we were a GM town. And I don't feel that way anymore,” Phillips said. “Like after the plant closed, why should I? The company didn't have any loyalty to us so why should we have it to them?”
Correction 06/12/2019: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect Hiram College's location compared to that of Lordstown.