Michigan town wonders what’s next as factory closes and 125 jobs are lost

A shopper makes his way back to his vehicle in downtown Evart. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

EVART—B.J. Northon dreams of new factories in his town’s future.

They wouldn’t have to be huge, like the former Evart Products Plant on U.S. 10, where he was one of 2,000 workers in the 1980s when he carpooled from Clare, a few miles west, before taking a job with the state.

Northon’s vision centers on something closer to the size of Vitro Automotive Glass, the city’s second largest employer, which announced it was closing this summer.

“I think it would be nice if three or four nice factories came in and supported 85 or 100 people in each of them,” Northon said. With those numbers, workers in Evart wouldn’t need to travel far to find work. The payrolls could support spending at other businesses in town, like the bookstore he runs with Ruth Ann Northon, his wife. And the young people in town who don’t go to college could aspire to jobs in their hometowns.

“The kids grow up and move away,” he said. “We need to find jobs that people can keep and settle down in.”

But with Vitro ending production on July 17 and laying off its 125 employees, Evart is now taking a step backward after six straight years of rebuilding its manufacturing workforce from the depths of the Great Recession. 

BJ and RuthAnn Northon at the counter of their bookstore in downtown Evart.  (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

The United States saw a wave of temporary job losses at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. But now economists are starting to turn their eyes toward data indicating long-term job losses in communities where the closings will be permanent. Places like Evart, a town of 1,869 near Big Rapids, must now find another employer that could use the closed factory even as coronavirus threatens more economic uncertainty across the state.

Evart, Osceola County’s second-largest community behind Reed City, is at a pivotal point.

Job losses at Vitro may not shake the regional labor market, with a wave of job openings at other facilities already starting to attract the displaced workers. 

Yet Evart is described as a poor community. And it won’t recover economically unless it can deliver on its plans —  set in motion before the pandemic — to develop its industrial park, expand its airport and revitalize its downtown.

The city is located along the divide between the more prosperous southern part of the state and northern Michigan, “which has been economically depressed for a very long time,” said Charley Ballard, an economist at Michigan State University. 

Losing 125 permanent jobs at Vitro will hurt, said Dan Massy, a community development coordinator with Osceola County.

“We are a lot more manufacturing-based than your typical rural county,” he said. 

“It’s something that we need to replace,” Massy said of the plant.  

Yet, Ballard said, “While we should do things to provide economic development opportunities in our rural areas, it’s not easy.” 

‘Not a lot of opportunities’

Evart is a regional destination for manufacturing jobs, pulling workers from nearby counties. Like much of Michigan, the city looks to the sector for stable employment, jobs that pay well for workers who don’t need post-high school education, and positions that are created by the dozens when a factory ramps up capacity.

Back in 2001, Osceola County had nearly 3,000 jobs in its factories. By 2013, it had lost 68 percent of them. In comparison, Michigan lost 43 percent of manufacturing jobs from 2001 until its lowest point in 2009.

It was only last year that statewide manufacturing jobs returned to pre-Great Recession levels. However, that wasn’t the case for Osceola County, which was still 216 positions short of 2007 levels as the pandemic unfolded.  

Evart started the year with some optimism, but the coronavirus makes it hard, said Mayor John Joyce. He owned the 7th Street Coffee Co. on the edge of downtown and planned this spring to expand it into a restaurant. He closed it for good in July.  

“There are a lot of people dancing a fine line right now,” he said of other business owners. 

 

Yet Osceola County didn’t experience many temporary layoffs due to COVID-19 that extended beyond the state-ordered shutdowns, said Shelly Keene, executive director of Michigan Works! West Central. Her office works with job seekers in six counties north of Muskegon, from Lake Michigan east to M-66.

“It was pretty much business as usual there,” she said of the county, with a population of 23,341 as of 2018. 

The permanent job losses aren’t mounting quickly, either. U.S. Marble, in nearby Mecosta County, laid off 150 people in January, with about half hired quickly by new employers. A Pizza Hut closed due to the pandemic. So did an event center, Keene said. But otherwise, the waves of layoffs felt in population centers around the state — at restaurants, tourism businesses, industrial sites ranging from small shops to AK Steel in Detroit — didn’t overwhelm Reed City and Evart or the villages that make up the rural county.

Except for Vitro.

A glut of automobile glass 

The automotive glass supplier, based in Mexico, told the state on April 8 that it planned a temporary shutdown due to COVID-19, but then had to make it permanent. Originally planning to close by June 30, it extended the closing until July 30.

Vitro plant officials did not respond to Bridge Michigan requests for comment, but it reported in a news release on June 2 that plants in Evart and Evansville, Indiana, would close this year. The company blamed coronavirus in a letter to the state. 

Alan Bengry, a pharmacist in downtown Evart and chair of the Downtown Development Authority, said Vitro had planned to close anyway, even as it was running three shifts. A glut of automotive glass, priced low and coming from China, is changing the market, Massy said. 

Manufacturers overall are not experiencing a lot of permanent closures so far this year, said John Walsh, CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association. Some have excess capacity, and may be running fewer shifts until they see demand grow. Some are consolidating operations into fewer plants. Automotive, in particular, is expecting lower sales this year, and that will be felt across the supplier base.

Michigan has learned to get nervous when that happens.

“The story of Michigan in the last 100 years is that it rode the wave of manufacturing with phenomenal success,” Ballard said. “Since then, it’s been kind of bumpy.”

‘A destination in Michigan’

The Muskegon River borders Evart to the east and then along its southern boundary, creating a natural point of pride in the community where fishing, parks and city-run campsites focus on nature. The groundwater also supplies Nestle Ice Mountain bottled water from a controversial deal with the state to pump from a well just outside of town.

“Residents want Evart to be known as a destination in Michigan,” according to a 2017 report following community meetings as the city successfully sought to be a part of the state’s Rising Tide initiative. “The vision describes crowded sidewalks downtown with a variety of restaurants, retail, and entertainment options, including a vibrant riverwalk.”

It continued: “The residents want an Evart with little or no poverty and opportunity for all; a community where people pitch in to help the community and each other.”

People who choose to stay in Evart “aren’t coming here because they can make a lot of money,” said Mark Buss, a lifelong county resident who retired from the community mental health department and now works as a success coach with Michigan Works! West Central. “They like the quality of life.”

Yet poverty is a concern. The median annual household income in Evart is $25,396, and the poverty rate is 37 percent, according to U.S. Census data. The median house value is $66,900, and 64 percent of adults over age 25 did not attend college. 

That’s one reason a focus on job creation preceded the pandemic, even in early 2019 when Osceola’s unemployment ranked 32 out of 83 counties. 

The loss of manufacturing jobs stings in a poor town: Manufacturing wages in Osceola essentially have been flat since 2007, averaging $57,361 per year in 2019, but they pay more than many jobs in the community.

When describing what the layoffs in Evart will mean to the town, City Manager Sara Dvoracek calls the situation “shocking” and “devastating.” 

But many in the city also are quick to point out other job opportunities emerging, like Lume, a marijuana grow facility that hopes to add 150 jobs within the next year, said Joyce, the mayor.

The largest employer is Ventra, a division of Flex-N-Gate, which employed 984 at its auto parts molding factory on U.S. 10 when it acquired the closed Dean Foods dairy facility on the city’s east side. Now across the two facilities it has over 1,000 workers and plans to hire 100, said Shelly Keene, executive director of Michigan Works! West Central. 

Workers from Vitro who move to Ventra, a union facility, could see a bump in pay, Keene said: Production workers earned $10 to $14 per hour at the closed plant, compared to the starting wage at Ventra of $14.19.

But if they can’t get a job in town, the dynamics change. 

“There are not a lot of opportunities for jobs in Evart itself,” said Lee Foster, a city resident, as he stopped at Hometown Hardware during a recent lunch break. “If you live here, you’ll have to drive a little bit for a new job.”

Mayor John Joyce welcomes visitors to downtown Evart. Joyce said he has big plans for the Northern Michigan town. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

That, he said, will change a monthly budget due to commuting costs for people who can afford a car. And he doubts a new job will come with good benefits.

Only a couple of people in the city said they know someone affected by the closing when asked by Bridge. One was Foster. The plant closing, he said, “is definitely going to change people’s lives.”

Changes for the city’s businesses also are likely, he said. 

“It will affect the local economy,” he said. “If they go to Big Rapids to work, they’ll buy their things there, instead of Evart.”

That concerns DDA leader Bengry, too. The owner of Holihan Drugs Store in the heart of downtown said the community has had to weather factory shutdowns before, including at least one at a previous incarnation of the auto glass facility. He’s hopeful for a new owner when the building goes onto the market, but he remains focused on what downtown needs. The effort is helped by the state’s Main Street Program to revitalize downtowns.

Vacancies dot the storefronts offering space for lease, though Bengry said most stores that were open before the pandemic have reopened. A quilt store is popular, as is a craft store next to the Northons’ bookstore. A new antique shop recently replaced a bicycle shop. And the city is hiring a new DDA director. 

Across the street from his pharmacy, Bengry sees hope in a barber pole. The city recently bought the building that once housed a barber shop and hopes to renovate it into retail incubator space. 

“Our vision is to get some of the empty spaces filled downtown that are complementary to what we already have and make them successful,” Bengry said. 

“We’re persevering.”

Pharmacy owner Alan Bengry talks about growth In downtown Evart from behind the counter of Holihan’s Pharmacy. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

 

‘Like a lot of little towns’

Joyce showed off the city’s new splash pad on a recent visit, following a drive from the former train depot that hosts community events and past newer ballfields funded by Nestle. Creating a family destination in a city park near the river is a point of pride in Evart, he said. There are already rail trails for hiking and snowmobiling, and lots of state forest nearby. 

“We offer folks cool stuff,” he said. “The style of living here is pretty neat.”

The city was moving aggressively to add to its economic base as the pandemic hit.

One of the biggest short-term economic development goals is “to actively market available city owned properties for development,” said Dvoracek, the city manager. That will include changing zoning for available lots in the industrial park to add commercial options along US-10. Officials hope the state Opportunity Zone designation, and potential tax breaks because of it, will help.

Other goals are keeping existing businesses —  like Ventra, which got a 12-year tax abatement for its expansion — and improving downtown, like through code enforcement. 

City funding was hit by coronavirus, as closed businesses used less water and sewer capacity, Dvoracek said. Some utility improvements were put on hold, and seasonal employees were furloughed. The campground didn’t open. Now Evart anticipates drops from the Vitro taxes, which totaled $57,825 for real property this year and $10,676 for personal property.

As funding is available, the airport will get some attention. Adding tee hangers for airplane storage and fuel supplies will boost cargo capacity, Joyce said. 

“Not many small towns can offer industrial and commercial sites with an airport in their backyard,” the mayor said.

Focus is on the dislocated workers, too. Keene said her Michigan Works! Office is lining up opportunities for the former Vitro employees. They’re all eligible for training programs that could pay for up to two years of classes. Shorter-term programs have potential, too, she said, like a six-week welding certification program. 

“There’s a wide range of opportunities for them,” Keene said. People who want to start work immediately may find jobs at the GEO private prison in Baldwin, if they have transportation and are willing to work in the confined space during the pandemic. Tubelite in Reed City is a big employer, she said, with wages starting at $15 per hour. 

While her husband hopes for new factories in Evart, RuthAnn Northon has her own wishes for its future. The couple lives above the store, and they’re proud to be a part of downtown. They haven’t sold enough books in about six years to make a profit, but they own the building, which helps. “We’re the only bookstore for miles,” she said. 

The Northons came to Evart for work. They stay, RuthAnn Northon said, because of the community. They want the people who live here and those driving through — for work or travel — to stop and shop within the city limits so that the town can grow its economic ecosystem.

“We’re probably like a lot of little towns,” RuthAnn Northon said. “It’s getting harder and harder.”

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Comments

Don
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 8:19am

keep voting republican help destroy the middle class!!!!

P Housley
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 9:00am

As a reporter in my younger days, I covered a lot of these towns. They are nice places to live but they always fight poverty and job losses. They are vulnerable to politicians who promise everything. I don't hear much from candidates about how they might fix them. It is starting to sound like W. Virginia's coal country. Manufacturing jobs are going away for a variety of reasons, not all of them because of the virus.

Yep, but
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 5:40pm

You forgot to mention addiction problems and churches that blame victims of societal breakdown.

LAW
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 9:11am

I'm not sure how you write an article about Evart and not mention Springhill Camp? Especially when you are talking about economics. The traffic from the camp alone was an immense boost to the community. Now that also has been reduced drastically.

Anonymous
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 5:44pm

LAW, maybe you missed this: 42 COVID cases linked to Christian youth camp in Gladwin County. If that is the basis of your local economy, God help you.

John Q. Public
Mon, 08/24/2020 - 8:49am

Probably because it was limited to what's in the city limits, and Springhill is in Osceola Township. Speaking of that township, it presents its own challenges to the area and how it is perceived. It brags on its road signs that it is "a zoned community". A drive around it would lead one to conclude that much of it is zoned as "personal garbage dump". There are instances of people living year round in travel trailers with no utilities--no electricity, no water or sewer--and piling up abandoned cars, broken furniture and all manner of assorted trash. Complaints to both the township and county fall on deaf ears, particularly coming from summer-only residents. The Trumpsters in the area don't want government telling them how to live. That's fine, but one of the consequenses is that people with money to invest don't want to live that way and won't locate there. The only question for us is how big a loss we're going to take on our well-maintained property when we sell it, surrounded as it is by squalor.

J L Bomen
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 11:02am

To use the vacant factory, look into companies looking for warehouse space. Just heard e-commerce needs warehouse space. Maybe not as many employees needed, but some tax revenue for the town.

Ouchez
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 12:20pm

Interesting, once again China is causing large loss of USA job's,,this time in the auto glass industry,,wrecking USA families and communities! Prez. Trump has, at least tried, to stop that tide of destruction wrought by China,,:(

Biden Harris 2020
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 5:46pm

Has he? Guess we can chalk that up to another Trump failure or unkept promise.

Bob
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 12:43pm

This is the impact of the decisions our governor has made. They are tough decisions, for sure, and have consequences. If she wants to celebrate her claimed success with COVID, she's going to have to accept the responsibility of this reality, also. It was a tough one but the decision has been made and we are seeing the effects. Now, if she wants to be claim she is a leader, what will she do with the effects of her decisions?

Anonymous
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 5:49pm

Bob, I know right? Why don't all these small town folks just stop complaining and cash in on their stocks? The economy is great, people! LOL

Slim Pickens
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 4:08pm

They should have saved some of the $600 when they were getting it every week...i know they will say they werent getting by on what they made before the $600.....the responsible people in this country are sick of excuses.Move to Mexico,see if you like it there.

Anonymous
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 5:52pm

Yeah, they can retire now! LOL That or buy Michigan auto insurance for a year. Too bad they can't afford a car. Thanks GOP legislature! Too bad we still have to drive on the damn nasty roads.

Jessyca S.
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 5:29pm

MORE. JOBS. IN. RENEWABLE. ENERGY.

Anna
Mon, 08/24/2020 - 10:44am

You do realize that almost all of the widely touted "jobs in renewable energy" in the US are for short term, moderate pay installers, right? People who earn $12-16 per hour, working on rooftops installing solar panels. Once an area has installed solar panels at the homes of all who want and can afford them, the jobs vanish. Solar panel manufacturers in the US can't compete effectively with Chinese manufacturers, even after Trump's tariffs, because the solar panels are only about 15% of the total installed cost of a household solar power system. Jobs building towers and installing wind turbines last a little longer, but after the 3 months to 1 year of installation, those jobs are gone for another 15-20 years.

Even if someone went abroad to become a certified wind turbine technician, which is a better-paid green energy specialty, they must travel from region to region every few days or weeks in order to keep working. The people in those jobs must become "road warriors", traveling weekly or bi-weekly between home and job site. This is almost exactly the opposite of the life style most small-town residents want for themselves and their families.

Anonymous
Tue, 08/25/2020 - 1:45pm

As opposed to no jobs, that sounds great.

TrumpCultMentality
Fri, 08/21/2020 - 6:01pm

Keep voting Republican, and keep giving away your resources away to multi-billion dollar conglomerates, I'm sure things will improve.

Christopher Bla...
Sat, 08/22/2020 - 4:23am

Need a Republican to run the state! The democrats have destroyed the manufacturing wealth. I lived there for 45 years and see the state's down fall.

William Plumpe
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 11:37am

If you really believe anybody can bring back manufacturing jobs to the levels in the mid seventies when I graduated from college you are fooling yourself.
A number of factors including robots, decrease in union membership and outsorcing jobs overseas has permanently downsized the pool of available manufacturing jobs.
And by in large those jobs pay less and provide less benefits.
What must be done is to find and develop new industries like renewable energy and tourism. I am sure that wind and solar farms are one possibiliy to produce clean energy and sell it to the grid. Another possibility is tourism.
The State parks around Evart present a largely untapped resource that could attract tourists from the cities if marketed correctly. Make Evart a tourist destination and they will come particularly after being cooped up for months. One idea---what about group backpacking/camping trips in the State parks with some local history thrown in?
Would require Evart, the County and the State to all work together but isn't that what it's all about?

Gerry Mandered
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 5:58pm

Never mind Chris, he doesn't realize the Republicans have had a death grip on our state's neck for a very long time with a pillow over our collective mouths, sold us out to the lowest bidders, like Nestle, similar to trading Manhattan for beads.

On May 24th 1626, Peter Minuit (also spelled 'Minuet') purchased the island of Manhattan for the equivalent of $24 worth of beads and trinkets. Even adjusted for inflation, this is probably the real Greatest Trade Ever, with apologies to John Paulson.

Shane
Sat, 08/22/2020 - 10:08am

Maybe start electing public officials that aren't anti-business and think taxing everything to oblivion is the solution to everything. And offer deep tax cuts and ensentives for small businesses. Unfortunately we keep getting stuck with idiots like Governor Whitless who's far more interested in padding her own pockets rather than doing what's right by the state. Right now is the perfect opportunity to massively grow Michigan:s economy with all the capital flight from NY, NJ, CA, etc. But unfortunately we're stuck with a moron for a Governor.

Anonymous
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 6:00pm

Shameless, you mean like Rick Snyder? LMAO

Armchair quarterback
Sun, 08/23/2020 - 6:02pm

Maybe you should run for governor. What are "ensentives"?

Patrick McPharlin
Mon, 08/24/2020 - 1:05pm

In the last four weeks we made trips from Lansing to Charlebois ,Fenton and Muskegon. We drove back roads as we were in no hurry.

Small town after small town had vacant storefronts. In many more were vacant than open. Though each small business does not employ many people each closure damages the economic future of the town and the surrounding areas.

Please study the impact of the small towns and cities in Michigan, especially in the more rural areas and Up North.

Anonymous
Tue, 08/25/2020 - 1:48pm

Blame Walmart, then Amazon. So what's next? Look forward.

John Q. Public
Mon, 08/24/2020 - 9:47pm

"Yet Evart is described as a poor community. And it won’t recover economically unless it can deliver on its plans — set in motion before the pandemic — to develop its industrial park, expand its airport and revitalize its downtown."

Boy, Evart sounds like a classic cargo cult. Just put the infrastructure in place and prosperity will fall from the sky. Even if it doesn't, at least they'll have a really cool Potemkin village.

Just kidding
Tue, 08/25/2020 - 1:51pm

Let's see, we legalized gambling, then weed, maybe it's time to legalize prostitution? States' rights! Why compete unfairly with Nevada? These Pure Michigan towns could become thriving again!

Thomas Richardson
Sat, 08/29/2020 - 9:58am

Nice article, but afraid we cannot hold out much hope as long as the "China Problem" - low priced parts produced in dirty factories with near slave wages persists. I would love to compare pollution from the low priced Chinese glass plants to pollution from Evart's closed plant. Wages/benefits too. At least President Trump is trying to fight this battle, unlike prior administrations from both parties.