One of the most painful changes that I’ve reported on in my travels around the country, is the gut-wrenching changes that towns which are virtually dependent upon one firm or industry for their jobs goes through when structural changes occur wiping out those jobs. I was in such a town last week.
Mayor Ned Mitchell, of Sesser, IL (population 2,128) was telling me a bit about the history of his community, “We had five coal mines in the county and had 12 within 25 miles of Sesser. Each employed between 500 and 800 miners who got not only great wages but excellent benefits because all of them were United Mine Workers mines. They all shut down soon after the passage of the Clean Air Act.”
One of his aldermen, an ex-miner piped up, “When I went to the mines in 1964 I was taking home $24.25/shift and when I was let go in 1992 I was up to $135/shift.”
Sesser has yet to recover from that downturn with unemployment still topping 12%, but Mayor Mitchell and the town aren’t giving up. They are hoping to develop more amenities to lure more visitors from nearby Rend Lake, which has 3 million people visit each year. And, they are improving the community in many ways. Four new baseball fields, one of which is being done by the St. Louis Cardinals at a cost of over $200,000, are in the works along with a new soccer field. A new 2007 TIF district is facilitating the tearing down of old, abandoned houses, replacing them with modern ones. And an old 1914 Vaudeville Theater/Opera House and adjacent café where I did my talk, is helping to revitalize the downtown.
New scrubber technology is leading to a resurgence of Illinois coal and several of the old mines are slowly reopening, but coal is probably never going to be the economic powerhouse that it was in the past. Towns like Sesser realize that and are getting on with a new, more diversified future.