Neenah, Wis.- Part Two

Part two of this article on a small midwestern factory town recounts some of the experiences of workers suffering from the effects of globalization on their livelihood.

By NELSON D. SCHWARTZ  Photographs by DAMON WINTER  Nov 25, 2017 for The New York Times

‘Change Is Hard for People’

                       John Bergstrom, whose ancestors arrived in Neenah from Norway 150 years ago, has helped build seven new office buildings.

Families are always rising and falling in America, Nathaniel Hawthorne observed around the time John Bergstrom’s ancestors arrived in Neenah from Norway 150 years ago, and Mr. Bergstrom can vouch for that.

The first Bergstroms made cast-iron stoves and carriages. When new technologies made those businesses obsolete, they turned to what would become the region’s dominant industry by the mid-20th century: paper.

They prospered, and the Bergstroms joined the other paper barons who built mansions along Lake Winnebago. That house is now a museum, and the Bergstroms’ paper business faded as mills closed.

John Bergstrom, now 71, had the foresight to diversify, moving into automobile sales and then real estate. From a single General Motors dealership that opened in 1982, the Bergstrom family now dominates auto sales throughout the region, selling everything from Chevys and Cadillacs to Hondas, Toyotas and BMWs.

“Change is hard for people,” Mr. Bergstrom said. “So many of the communities in the middle part of America were based on a particular business or industry, and when that changed, the community didn’t. They lost the ability to continue to be what they once were.”

Indeed, as a developer, he helped Neenah avoid the fate of other Midwestern towns that depended on a single smokestack industry.

In 1993, Mr. Bergstrom and 11 other local businessmen each put in $100,000 to develop a decrepit site downtown with a new office building. It quickly filled up — and since then Mr. Bergstrom has helped build seven new office buildings, lifting the work force in downtown Neenah from 500 to more than 3,700.

A revitalization of the area has attracted businesses like Plexus, a maker of electronic equipment, whose new building is in the background.

One of those sites was the former Bergstrom paper mill, which the town tore down about a decade ago. It is now home to the headquarters of Plexus, a rapidly growing maker of complex electronic equipment that also has two manufacturing facilities nearby, employing nearly 2,000 people in all.

“When you fly on a 747, there are likely Plexus parts in that plane that were made here,” said Dean Kaufert, the mayor of Neenah.

There is still a paper mill downtown as well — Neenah Paper, which traces its roots to the 1870s and was spun off from Kimberly-Clark in 2004. The company has thrived by making high-end stationery, labels and other products requiring production and service know-how not easily replicated overseas.

But the closing of so many other mills has a way of obscuring success stories.

Football fans watching a Green Bay Packers game at The Dome, a restaurant and sports bar owned by Mayor Kaufert.

Nearly a decade after the mill closed in Kimberly, Wis., putting 570 employees out of work, the town is still struggling with how to redevelop the 91-acre brownfield site.

Last month, the paper maker Appvion filed for bankruptcy, putting at least 1,000 jobs in the Appleton area in jeopardy. Nearby, at Appleton Coated, 500 workers have been laid off since the summer, with a skeleton crew staying on as the company’s new owner seeks a buyer for the plant.

Passing the ruins of the abandoned plant in downtown Kimberly as he drove to work at Appleton Coated every day, Chris Bogan would have the same thought: his mill could be next.

So when that came to pass this fall, after five years of winding massive paper rolls, Mr. Bogan was scared, but not shocked. “Three days after I was hired at Appleton Coated, we were warned about layoffs, so I worried about it all the time,” he said.

Two other local manufacturers did step up and make offers to Mr. Bogan and other laid-off workers, but the $14 to $17 an hour they offered didn’t come close to the $28.66 he was earning at the paper plant.

And with his wife at home taking care of two toddlers, including a 2-year-old son with cerebral palsy, there was no way to bridge that gap. “If my wife was working, that would be acceptable, but in my situation that won’t work,” he said.

A Marine veteran, Mr. Bogan has enrolled at Fox Valley Technical College, and hopes to receive his commercial trucking certification in a few months.

That could lift his salary back above $20 an hour, but in the meantime he and his family are without health insurance. His son’s therapy is covered by Medicaid.

Students with two-year degrees in fields like automation can command starting salaries of $50,000 to $60,000 a year

“It’s been a little over a month, and people are coming to terms with the fact that we won’t be making the same wages that we were,” he said. Mr. Bogan said his main concern now was making sure his wife would still be able to bring their son to his occupational, speech and physical-therapy sessions each week.

Downtown Neenah is only a 15-minute drive from his home, but the craft beers on tap there and the farm-to-table restaurants that have opened up might as well be in Madison or Brooklyn.

“The area is changing,” he said. “I grew up on the outskirts of town, and as a local guy, it’s not for me. I’d rather cook a steak at home than go out and pay $120 for a meal.”

To be continued
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