Addressing the challenges and opportunities of the departure of a large local employer

How can communities build an economic recovery in the wake of the departure of a major employer? Our Technical Assistance for Nuclear Communities program heard from a few local leaders who have faced that challenge, and they shared some of the fundamental lessons and best practices that can help communities address many types of economic shock.

“No one is coming to save your community ⎻ you are the ones you’ve been waiting for. The local community possesses the tools, intellect, expertise, and ultimately, the personal stake in addressing the challenges on the horizon.” 

Brett Schwartz, NADO Research Foundation

On January 21, Brett Schwartz moderated a discussion about economic recovery after the departure of a major employer in different contexts. We were joined by a wonderful set of panelists contributing their lessons learned from different perspectives.

  • Cindy Winland, Consultant at the Nuclear Decommissioning Collaborative
  • Terri Close, Supervisor at Charter Township of Hampton, MI
  • Vicki Rusbult, Director of Community and Business Services at the Eastern Maine Development Corporation

We were also joined by a diverse audience with representation from government agencies (65%), community members (21%), advocates (12%), and nuclear industry workers (3%) from across the country. Throughout the conversation, our panelists shared some helpful background on models for addressing transition processes, various impacts of local plant closures on their communities, strategies for diversifying the economy, and the importance of supportive partnerships. Here are our three main takeaways:

Planning early for a major economic shift produces better outcomes 

Cindy Winland kicked us off with an overarching principle when it comes to complicated, large industrial transitions: planning early for a major economic shift produces better outcomes, and it’s never too early to start planning. Many of the impacts are felt at different times (and levels of severity), so it is critical to start planning for the impacts that you can anticipate as soon as possible. Communities preparing for industrial shifts and other disruptive economic events have established a solid foundation for long-term planning by coordinating governmental agencies, community organizations, academia, philanthropic players, and other stakeholders to contribute resources and expertise right from the beginning. Communities often lack many of the necessary resources when they start dealing with the nuclear decommissioning process, but harnessing existing and potential relationships to support the process is certainly a step in the right direction.

Cindy shared a variety of resources on economic planning and sustainability related to challenging shifts like the departure of an important local employer. You can check these out, as well as other resources mentioned throughout the webinar, at the end of this post.

Collaborative relationships with local and regional partners can be instrumental in tapping into new opportunities

Hampton Township, MI, , has faced significant closures, with more on tap. This coastal community of almost 9,500 residents in Bay County, MI, right on Saginaw Bay, faced the  closure of a local coal plant in 2016, with a second one scheduled to retire in 2023. On top of that, the natural gas generation facility sitting next to the remaining coal plant is scheduled to retire by 2031. Following the closure of the first coal plant in 2016, the share of the town’s operating budget sourced  from property taxes from Consumers Energy, the owner of the plant, dropped from 50 percent to 23 percent . The number of direct, indirect, and induced jobs lost affected the township as well as the surrounding areas; the region experienced an overall loss of $71.6M in expenditures and $17.7M in compensation in the years following the closure. 

Hampton had to get to work. Terri Close, the township’s supervisor, shared how building new, diverse relationships with everyone involved was key to their aim to diversify the local economy and improve quality of life for current and future residents. With consistent support from Consumers Energy, the township adopted a long-term planning approach focused on generating economic activity to compensate for tax revenue loss; create new living-wage jobs; diversify their economy; and plan for alternative uses for the former site and other vacant parcels or buildings. In partnership with the Just Transition Fund, they developed an Economic Redevelopment Strategy Plan informed by the newly created Steering Committee with representation from various sectors including Consumers Energy, local business owners, surrounding municipalities, philanthropic organizations, and the US Economic Development Administration (EDA). Among other things, the plan maps a strategy to attract new industries to the township and expand those that are already there into regional hubs. Their vibrant agricultural community, for example, is now tapping into new opportunities in the manufacturing sector; food and beverage manufacturing concentrated around their agricultural activities (like commodity crop sales) offers tremendous economic opportunity.

Change inspires creativity

The Eastern Maine Development Corporation (EMDC) is one of seven economic development districts in the state of Maine, serving highly rural communities with low population density. In 2014, the four-county region experienced the loss of five out of its six major historical paper mills. The mills had been operating in the area for over a century, but reduced demand for paper due to technological advances ultimately forced the owners to pull out. These closures resulted in the loss of almost 1,500 jobs in total due to interruptions to the local supply chain and closures of small businesses. The communities formerly hosting the mills had to cut funding for local services like fire, police, and waste disposal and rely on neighboring localities.

EMDC’s initial approach was to partner with EDA for a short-term planning project including strategic, workforce, and resiliency planning. The organization conducted an extensive community and stakeholder engagement campaign to capture different experiences and expectations around recent economic events, which ultimately led to the creation of Economic Opportunity Response Teams. This model blends the traditional services EMDC has provided in the past with additional services targeting needs identified in previous phases of the planning process, including community and climate resilience, development modeling, private investment, economic gardening, community facilitation/scenario analysis, site selection for business attraction, and financial strategic planning. “When you have deep changes like ours” Vicki said, “by finding a way to streamline services, we can reduce the amount of time to get people back on their feet.” The emphasis is on the inclusivity and accessibility of the process itself; when an Economic Opportunity Response Team meets with a community or business, they bring representation from every involved party to the very first conversation to identify a baseline, foster existing and new relationships, and coordinate resources and efforts towards a shared community vision.

If you’d like to learn more about the Nuclear Closure Communities assistance, you can check out our informational webinar and/or read our press release introducing the team, the kind of support that is available, and details about this new assistance program. To inquire about partnering with the team on behalf of your community, please fill out the contact form on SGA’s website >

This effort utilizes Federal funds under award ED20HDQ3030068 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the project team and do not necessarily reflect the views of EDA or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Resources mentioned in the webinar

Resilience Technical assistance Uncategorized