Rust Belt Revival: Rebuilding America through local efforts in New Castle, PA

A New Castle revival is, therefore, part of the much broader Rust Belt Revival.


NEW CASTLE, Pa., January 23, 2015 – America’s economic recovery has taken center stage of the national news since the 2008-2009 Great Recession. The Great Recession was not, however, the start of America’s economic troubles. In many respects, the Great Recession was the product of decades of economic decline and ruin in communities throughout the country.

While the so-called Wall Street economy−particularly with reference to the financial services sector−had been booming up to the Great Recession and has since recovered nicely, Main Street economies like those in the once-prosperous community surrounding New Castle, Pennsylvania had never fully recovered from previous economic collapses occurring as far back as the 1970s and even the 1930s.

Although prosperous individuals and businesses still remain within the Greater New Castle metropolitan area, much of its declining, aging population lives in a perpetual state of poverty and despair.

Unsurprisingly, government services and healthcare providers are the largest employers in surrounding Lawrence County. What this says is that the local economy is far too dependent on outside government funding and an ever-narrowing population of employees with private insurance. Thus, the New Castle area economy is increasingly unsustainable and is failing to provide for the needs of the entire population.

Because job seekers are not job creators, the revival of the city−known as the “hot dog capital of the world” thanks to its invention of the chili dog and the “fireworks capital of America” due to ionic businesses like S.Vitale Pyrotechnic Industries, Inc. (Pyrotecnico) and Zambelli Internationale−depends on attracting new businesses into the area and building new industries.

But New Castle’s story is far from just a local story. New Castle is only one example of many communities throughout what has become known as the Rust Belt, most of which are struggling to rebuild their economies.

Like other Rust Belt communities, New Castle does have its bright spots like the restoration of the Warner Brother Threats as well as the decision of Huntington, First Merit, and First Commonwealth banks to locate their regional headquarters in the downtown New Castle. Yet the community still suffers heavily from persistent issues like income inequality and sprawl.

A New Castle revival is, therefore, largely depends on its becoming part of a much broader Rust Belt Revival.  Because the Rust Belt was once the production center of the United States, providing enough well-paying jobs to create a middle class lifestyle and sustain prosperous communities, this is no longer the case. For that reason, America’s economic recovery very much depends on a Rust Belt Revival.

While Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cleveland have distinctly different needs from those of Titusville and Oil City, Pennsylvania and Rochester, NY, all their stories are just as important to the national discussion as Detroit and Silicon Valley. After all, the critical thinking and solution-building analysis needed to revive cities like New Castle is certainly relevant as it pertains to those numerous communities around the country facing similar problems.  Whether discussing tool making or IT, reviving long-neglected communities like New Castle is an essential component of that discussion.

Tired of local and regional news coverage focusing on the negative events taking place in New Castle, local businessman and father Angelo Perrotta decided to found NCRadio450 and NCTV45 in order to restore New Castle’s image and lead the rebuilding of his community. Supported by local businesses, this radio and television startup decided to team up with the New Visions volunteer movement. In turn, this writer was asked to moderate an ongoing roundtable discussion on revitalizing New Castle.

Thanks to Larry Corvi of New Visions and Barbara Grossman of NCTV45, the initial conversation was able to reveal the key to creating a prosperous, sustainable county economy hinged on the revival of downtown New Castle.

In many respects, it was observed that the community had been avoiding the necessary struggle to rebuild downtown New Castle. Sporadic business development throughout the city and county has led to the current, massive sprawl. This, in turn, has created a situation where outlying area residents are driven more frequently to patronize shopping centers away from New Castle’s downtown district and outside the area, much to the detriment of smaller local businesses.

The remoteness of many local businesses to their natural customer base also adds costs to their overhead while undermining efforts to rebuild county infrastructure. These issues and others have combined to severely limit business development and job creation.

Exploring Barbara Grossman’s “New Castle Pearl B Market” project as part of an overall return to a Marketplace Lifestyle−one in which the local economy is driven by the needs of the people and community becomes the focus of daily life−it soon became apparent that seeding and supporting a collection of artisan and craftsman businesses capable of creating new jobs for the perpetually impoverished largely depends in turn upon high income businesses that can drive such developments.

To support the consumption of higher-end, custom-made goods, New Castle must attract consumers with greater disposable income and attract businesses that can provide higher wages. In other words, the area cannot thrive on its retail and service sectors alone.

Contributing to the diversified business portfolio New Castle needs, a growing number of downtown professional services businesses and firms, such as lawyers, accountants, and doctors are helping serve that very need. It is vitally necessary, however, to make downtown New Castle a true destination location. Making this a reality would encourage a significant increase in downtown foot traffic which would, in turn, attract new businesses that provide high and low-end consumer goods as well as professional and nonprofessional services.

Meanwhile, reviving and developing traditional and high-tech manufacturing to create a significant increase in the number of middle class jobs in the city is key to rebuilding the local production economy ultimately required to provide for all this region’s needs.

Additionally, largely unnecessary costs resulting from overly-burdensome city regulations are a major factor in driving businesses out of downtown New Castle as well as preventing construction of buildings that can host higher-end tenants able and willing to pay higher rents.

The same holds true of social factors like blighted properties and crime. Take for example the situation involving Joseph’s Market, a popular local grocery featuring a good selection of regionally-produced goods and products. Posing the question, “Why did Joseph’s Market move away from downtown New Castle,” led to the discovery that psychological barriers can also lead to inner city deterioration.

Such barriers range from outdated views on crime, a lack of a community identity, a lack of empathy toward the impoverished, a lack of leadership, and associated issues, all of which lead to limiting the area’s recovery. Issues like these still need to be confronted and explored.

Although the kind of problem-avoidance and excuse-making that has helped perpetuate New Castle’s economic dilemma largely stems from economic and psychological barriers, the kind of problem-solving required to revive New Castle and the surrounding area starts with identifying precisely what those barriers are. The next step is confronting and exploring those issues.

In the longer term, the lessons being learned today in New Castle may in turn help other communities to revive their own moribund economies and lifestyles. As  New Castle’s economic needs are addressed and confronted, other communities taking part in the Rust Belt Revival could use a New Castle revival as a model for what to do and not to do when confronting their own unique community problems.

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