What Happened To My Hometown Of Jamestown And Why?

What in the world happened to my hometown, Jamestown, New York, from the vibrant city I remember growing up to its industrial, population and business decline of today?

The City of Jamestown was founded in the early 1800s and grew to be a proud city of over 40,000 people. It became a small boom town before the late 1920s/1930s depression hit the country and city. But it rebounded in the 1940s and early 1950s. Then a gradual slow decline impacted the city. Today manufacturing is a shell of its once diversified and vibrant era. A huge percentage of the population is now on welfare. Young people are leaving the area for greener pastures. The remaining population is 10,000 to 15,000 less than the peak population and is now aged. These are the realities of as I see my hometown today.

Early growth in Jamestown was from the lumber business. Gradually the worsted mills, furniture factories and metal fabrication firms started, grew and boomed, including: Broadhead Mills, Maddox Table, Tillotson Furniture, Dahlstrom Doors, Watson Manufacturing and Art Metal, to name a few firms. Blackstone Corporation developed the washing machine. Marlin Rockwell held virtually all of the ball bearing patents. The Crescent wrench was almost a noun. Where are all of these local giants now? Gone!

Let me be blunt and say that, in my opinion, the key factors in the decline lie with the yesteryear captains of industry and the city fathers of the past. It is my belief that the captains of industry did not innovate and modernize their facilities. For example, Marlin Rockwell, where I worked, continued to use overhead belt drives for machines into the 1950s. That era was of the late 1800s and earlier 1900s. Eventually, the best way for local firms to be competitive, then, was through keeping labor rates low. This contributed to multiple strikes. At the same time, I believe the city fathers gave the captains of industry cover and discouraged new business rom moving in. I remember Chris-Craft and Howard Johnsons coming in after World War II. They had a short stay. Why? The seeds of decline had been sown.

Now, with what credibility do I have to conclude the above? As one who was born in Jamestown in 1933, I grew up with a hometown atmosphere. I also remember my father working only two to three days a week during the Depression. He was a maintenance foreman at Maddox for 37 years. When he went back to work full time, I remember him giving me a nickle to get an ice cream cone. I thought I was the richest kid on the block. I savored the nickle few days before buying the cone.

Growing up, I remember taking the city bus downtown on Friday nights with my parents to shop as the parking spaces were filled. The downtown was a beehive of activity. Very few store vacancies were seen. A large variety of shopping was also available. Bigelows, Lockwoods, Field and Wrights, Carnahans, four five and dime stores (Murphys, Woolworths, Grants and Kresges) and many other shops were full. They are history today.

I attended the Jamestown public schools and graduated from JHS in 1951. When I graduated Jamestown was one of the top schools in the state. While renting a cottage on Chautauqua Lake in 2011, I heard on TV that Jamestown schools were in the bottom tier. What happened here? While attending my 60th high school reunion, my wife Joanne and I toured the high school. She is also a JHS graduate. We were amazed at the wonderful new facilities installed after we graduated. I questioned the tour guide as to why the decline since we graduated. He said that, as you can see, the opportunities are there for those that want to learn. We agreed. He also said that there is a large turnover of some students and they present a challenge to keep academics on a high level. Why the turnover? He didn’t respond.

As a child, I thought it would be neat to be an ice delivery person. My parents had an ice box in our home unitl 1940. They then got a refrigerator. Soon after, they got a telephone. Later, I wanted to be a professional skier. I grew up on skis. By high school, I wanted to be an engineer because I wanted to improve things. In 1955, I graduated from Purdue University with an engineering degree. I then joined Marlin Rockwell, who I worked for summers while attending Purdue. Previously during the summer, starting at age 11, I mowed lawns, caddied, delivered groceries, worked in a drug store and worked at Maddox.

In 1963 that all changed. As I was reading the Sunday paper, I found out that I was earning less than the average starting engineering graduate’s salary. I had been out of college eight yearsand held a management position. This started a job search. I wound up joining the IBM Corporation in the Poughkeepsie area. I worked for IBM or 23 plus years including at four other locations – Endicott, N.Y., Manassas, Va.; Lexington, Ky. and Boca Raton, Fla. During those early years, we added two sons to the family.

While at IBM, I progressed in my career as an industrial engineer, systems analyst and into management. I had four technical articles published and received several awards. The height of my career was as plant materials manager. My last assignment prior to retirement was as manager of divisional marketing systems. During my years at IBM, I witnessed innovation and the management of change.

To regain the earlier Jamestown stature years ago lost presents some huge obstacles. First of all, to manufacture and market a product with a reasonable return on investment, a firm needs: raw materials; a facility with the latest tools; qualified people; relevant systems; a means of distribution and a market. Above all, it needs to be competitive. My familarity is mostly with manufacturing, materials management, systems, managing, administration, marketing, planning, infrastructure and land development. Jamestown’s location is not in major distribution lanes, which is a cost disadvantage. Secondly, the taxation climate in New York state is not conducive to manufacturing and business with its near-highest rates in the nation. It is also not a right-to-work state. Further, the winters here, while ideal for sports, are an impact on operating costs. These are formidable manufacturing obstacles to expand past any local markets.

Perhaps all is not lost, however. With beautiful Chautauqua Lake, Chautauqua Institution, Jamestown Community College, the ice arena and many wineries, the Jamestown area has some unique attractions. In my opinion, instead of pursuing new manufacturing, may I suggest some areas to pursue for their interest to locate in the Jamestown area:

a major data processing center

a major research facility

some other high intelligence/environmentally clean firms.

Now, one may argue or thier causes and disagree with my conclusions, but no one can change the reality of what has happened to Jamestown. I have no further interest than expressing my humble opinion and to with the best for my hometown to turn around economically.