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Despite trends, upstate's not done yet with manufacturing

Kraft Heinz plans to close its Campbell, N.Y. plant in one to two years.

Roxanne Mourhess says the milk trucks roll by her antique store every day. The store is a 150-year-old former church on the main drag in Campbell, New York, a small town near Corning. The store is just down the street from the weathered, light blue grocery store. In the other direction, a Kraft plant puffs out steam by the railroad tracks. Mourhess couldn’t believe it when she heard that the plant was slated for closure. 

“Your immediate reaction is, ‘Oh my gosh, another manufacturing industry in our town, and thus our country, is not going to be here,’” she says.

The facility employs almost 400 people. The newly merged Kraft Heinz Company planned to close it and three other plants in upstate New York. The state halted the other closures with an incentive deal, but Kraft Heinz rejected a deal for the Campbell plant, according to the Corning Leader. Instead, the company will keep it open for 12 to 24 months and help look for a new owner. 

“We were at the abyss, and now we’re 12 to 24 steps back from the abyss, if you will,” says Campbell town supervisor David Tennent.

Campbell isn’t the only town feeling a little discouraged lately. A recent New York federal reserve report showed a four-month decline in manufacturing activity, and layoffs continue to threaten around the state.

A new statewide competition aims to help turn things around, though. The state will give $500 million to three regions for plans that promote economic growth. The Southern Tier and other regions are pitching increased manufacturing and help for food industry, like the Campbell plant.

Susan Christopherson, chair of the Cornell University department of city and regional planning, says that’s a smart move.

“Food processing is an industry that uses a lot of workers to produce the output,” she explains. “It’s not a sophisticated industry that uses very expensive equipment.” That means it creates a lot of jobs. “That said, we don’t want to go to the bottom of those industries, where they’re just producing a product like macaroni and cheese and they’re just competing on the basis of price.”

Christopherson says it’s better to target high-end, fancier foods, like the organic sector. Those companies compete on quality, and it’s a growing market. 

Another voice in New York politics, though, is questioning the whole way the state does economic development.

“The current economic development model is, ‘We’ll pick a project and throw money at it,’” says Empire Center president E.J. McMahon, “But the best things can happen and the government has nothing to do with them.”

McMahon cites upstate’s recent Greek yogurt boom as an example. He says surprises like that come when businesses feel welcome in the state, and New York needs to send out better vibes.

“I don’t think the fracking decision helped, in terms of image, and I don’t think the $15 minimum wage helps, in terms of image,” he says. With a better image, McMahon adds, the state wouldn’t have to work so hard to bolster industry.

In Campbell, officials are working for now on their own ways to make a new business feel welcome. They’re crafting tax incentives and looking for technical help from Cornell University for plant upgrades. The local development agency is working with Kraft Heinz to market the facility. 

“We have to focus on the future, but we have to work hard to make sure that future is more than 12 months,” says David Tennent. “Let’s get it closer to 12 years.”

Solvejg Wastvedt grew up in western Pennsylvania and graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Over the summer, she served in Los Angeles as an intern on NPR's National Desk. Plus, before coming to Upstate New York, Solvejg worked at the Minneapolis community radio station KFAI. When she isn't reporting the news, Solvejg enjoys running and exploring hiking trails.