The local economy, unable to compete and keep pace, started to show signs of failure early on. These signs were only amplified during the Great Depression. Despite a post-war boom following World War II fueled largely by the arrival of Corning Glass in 1950, when the Corning factory that had employed thousands closed, signs of deindustrialization were unmistakable.
By 1968 the Gale Manufacturing declared bankruptcy and closed. The merger of Albion Malleable with Hayes Industries in 1967, signaled the end to another era as well with the loss of local control for Albion’s sister factories (the Gale and Malleable). Finally, the closure of Corning Glass Works in 1975, only one year after winning the All-America City award was a devastating blow.
What made the 1970’s different from other times of scarcity and unrest, was that the old order of leaders from industry with deep Albion ties no longer existed. There were no longer figures like Crowell, Gardner, Dickie, the Whites, Kessler, and Parker to provide relief for Albion’s residents. A local culture and place carefully created over several decades and generations was abandoned. As the old gave way to the new and people left Albion in large numbers, cherished local institutions atrophied and in many cases died.
Various responses emerged to the deteriorating economic conditions. An Economic Development Corporation was formed in July 1977 with the purpose “to strengthen and revitalize the local economy by alleviating and preventing conditions of unemployment.” A Tax Increment Finance Authority (TIFA) was established. The TIFA was able to issue bonds for capital investment in selected areas of the city. These bonds were used to install infrastructure like roads and sewers, and for marketing and management of the Albion Industrial Park. All additional tax revenue generated following a base year would be used to pay the bondholders back and to fund future improvements.
Recognizing the wear and tear on the downtown, a Downtown Development Authority was formed in 1988. The purpose of the DDA is quite similar to the EDC, “to correct and prevent deterioration in the downtown business district.” For over 70 years business had been shifting north of downtown along major traffic arteries. First along Michigan Avenue and Austin Avenue where the road between Detroit and Chicago passed through Albion, and then to the North Eaton Street area where an entrance and exit ramp for Interstate 94 opened in 1960. Other factors threatening the downtown were elimination of a residential population downtown and unused second and third floors of buildings. Further, many churches that were major stakeholders relocated from the downtown location to new buildings constructed on the edge of town, accessible to most people only by automobile. Depopulation of the city center and spread of people to the edges of the city caused increasing dependency on the automobile. This required demolition of more buildings downtown to build expansive parking lots many which stood empty like the buildings they replaced. And this destructive cycle resulted in further decline downtown.
Until a residential population is allowed to return, the fate of downtown is sealed. As one consultant wrote about downtown Albion in 1992, “Should we occupy ourselves with carefully rearranging the deck chairs on this particular Titanic and wait for downtown Albions inevitable meeting with a very large iceberg.”
Recognizing how the fate of Albion College and its host community were tied together, Albion College President Peter T. Mitchell initiated a community visioning effort. The Greater Albion Alliance was formed in 1998 to encourage resurgence of the city, similar to the visioning process for Albion College that he successfully led after becoming President. In a 1998 document on the college vision, several ambitious goals were presented with projected completion by 2003: an unemployment rate lower than the state average, a population growth of 10 percent, and economic development and tax base expansion of 20 percent, as well as becoming a retirement destination.
Albion, Michigan has envisioned a dynamic and progressive future for this remarkably diverse and progressive community. Building on our strengths of genuine warmth and friendliness, rich cultural diversity, deep and abiding commitment to children and their education, beautiful parks and historic buildings, a nationally renowned liberal arts college, and an incredible infrastructure of information technology, Albion is destined to serve as a model for small town development. The citizens of Albion, Michigan believe this vision of The Smart Community is a marvelous opportunity to promote the Greater Albion Area as a technologically advanced community, but also as a place that makes smart decisions, both for today and for its future
- Extends access to worldwide technology for all citizens
- Provides support for lifelong health, fitness, and wellness
- Promotes and attracts artists and artisans
- Affirms diversity as a core value
- Capitalizes on its downtown National Historic District
- Champions a strong ethic of volunteerism
- Aggressively pursues responsible economic development
- Maintains a global perspective and international connections
- Views education as a community-wide commitment
Albion did not advance in the Digital Village Grant process. A silver lining was the receipt of a $2 million grant from Roland M. Gerstacker Foundation, half of which was designated for investments in the city of Albion. These funds were targeted for investment into: “high yield programs and ideas that will distinguish Albion as truly one of the finest small towns in our nation.” Among some of the ideas suggested were a children’s museum, a gallery for the arts community, and a cyber café. The award was announced at a community celebration on September 23, 2000 in a picnic pavilion at Victory Park.
Large scale demolition of Brooks Foundry in 2000, and the Union Steel Products site in 2001, heralded the changing order. There would be no going back to the past and placing these factories back into service. Instead, Albion needed to prepare itself for a future as a much smaller community, with fewer people, with large industrial sites allowed to fall fallow or to completely disappear.
By the time that Albion Malleable announced that it would be closed in July 2002, this was merely an aftershock to the displacements spanning the past several decades. Albion Malleable may have provided a symbolic connection to one of the great industrial enterprises in Albion from the past, though real local control of Albion Malleable had actually been lost in 1967. Closing of the factory was merely the inevitable outcome from this loss of local control.
The closing of Trillium Hospital in Albion, also in 2002, was just one more sign of the impact deindustrialization was having on local institutions. The Albion Health Care Alliance was one of the spin-offs of the Greater Albion Alliance visioning process. Participating organizations included the Battle Creek Health System, Oaklawn Hospital, Albion College, Battle Creek Community Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The purpose of the Albion Health Care Alliance is to: “promote wellness, access to health care, and care coordination to enable people in the greater Albion Community to achieve their optimal health status.”
Increasingly as the old industrial order fades in Albion, the attention is now placed on Albion College to be a generator of economic development. Whether they are able to rise to the occasion and meaningfully contribute to revitalization of the community remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the rich history of the community and many buildings that remain and embody it are hanging in the balance.
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