Since deindustrialization strongly hit Connersville in the 1980s and 1990s, the community has been on a slow but steady decline. The population has continued to shrink, the average age is growing progressively older, and businesses have been slow in returning to the community. Once a thriving population of over 17,500, Connersville is now home to around 13,000 people and only a fraction of the industry and business it had a century earlier. Many of the locals are worried about drug overdoses, unemployment, and crime in the community. Nevertheless, there are strides being taken for the future.
The current as well as past mayors, individuals from the Chamber of Commerce, and members of the Board for Economic Development have all invested in bringing new corporations to Connersville. Private tours of current facilities, local benefits, and open lots are just a few of the attractions that have the potential to draw industry to town – much like in the 1960s.
Craig Howell, who is the current Chairman of the Board for Economic Development, discussed work being done in Fayette County and in conjunction with the surrounding counties to bring work to the area as a whole; rather than competing against each other for new business, the counties work together to appeal to companies based on the amenities and goods that can be provided in each county. Whichever is the “best fit” for a potential company will reach out to potential investors instead of competing against each other for business, which in the end benefits all surrounding counties with new jobs and economic development.
Interviewees were particularly excited about the implications that Howden purchasing Roots from GE may have for both the company and the community. Don Brown, who has worked for Roots under its many parent companies since 1981, feels that it is becoming more of a family atmosphere in the workplace, much as it was when he started working there immediately after high school graduation. People are looking out for each other and helping when they can both in and outside the office. The community is working hard to take care of their own.
Stant has also been slowly recuperating their production and workforce, while keeping their promise to keep their international headquarters in Connersville. In doing so, Stant remains one of a handful of businesses that began in Fayette County and have maintained their independence from national corporations over the past 150 years.
Outside of industry, businesses have slowly been making their way back to Connersville, like Kroger, Wal-Mart, and others that are located in the shopping centers on the north side of town. Others were able to brave the hard times: Riedmans continues to sell cars, Kunkels and Mousie’s still provide local grub, the glass workshop remains open downtown – though it sells antiques now too – and the Connersville News-Examiner still puts out a local paper, even if it isn’t daily anymore.
It has been almost fifty years since the new high school and vocational program opened in the fall of 1969 just outside of town on Western Hill. Fifty years of students taking general education classes before going to college, participating in the Majorettes, winning state basketball championships, and walking the cold walk between buildings on campus. Fifty years of students learning a trade in hopes of getting a job at a local business, a fact which was more easily achieved before the turn of the twenty-first century.
As Don and John Brown noted – which you can find out more about in “Joining the Workforce” – until the late 1990s, students were being hand-picked from the career center by local businesses, interviewing for co-op programs, and getting jobs immediately after graduation. The school was doing what it advertised: putting students in a career they chose in school.
But with local downsizing, shifts in industrial technology, and changing education standards due to No Child Left Behind and other education acts in the late twentieth century, students did not appear as prepared, nor were jobs readily available to them in Connersville or surrounding counties. Craig Howell mentioned how the director of the Career Center is working to improve classroom standards and the skills students are graduating with, but change comes slowly.
Funding remains a driving force of change since the school must first meet national and state standards before attempting to make changes to the curriculum. While local interests were able to shape the curriculum more to their liking when the school opened in 1969, shifting forces at a higher level make educational change difficult today.
The technical school has continued to serve the local high school students and adults in the community, as well as bringing in students from five surrounding counties. Although the number of enrolled students has continued to decline along with the overall population of Fayette County, Whitewater Technical Career Center continues to offer programs in a growing number of fields including cosmetology, health careers, technology, and early childhood education; the developing curriculum, while restricted somewhat by economic and political factors beyond the community’s control, demonstrates how education, though at times proactive, remains responsive to the changing community around it.