“I wondered what would happen five, six years down the road when the weeds were growing in parking lots and the plants had their windows broken out,” he says. “What would the community look like then?”
These were not far-fetched fears. Kokomo had made an ignominious Forbes list of fastest-dying communities in America. The recession and collapse of the U.S. auto industry had battered the town. Three major employers — Chrysler, General Motors and Delphi, an auto parts supplier — had filed for bankruptcy. Hundreds of workers were laid off. Unemployment briefly topped 20 percent.
Shrock, who’d risen from Chrysler machine operator to a United Auto Workers international representative, was worried. It wasn’t just 4,000 Chrysler workers. He was also thinking about some 10,000 auto retirees in the county and their pensions.
During that tense first half of 2009, Shrock wondered if the automakers — and his town — would endure. The Obama administration had pumped in more than $60 billion to fund GM and Chrysler’s bankruptcies, but there were no guarantees.
“I had a lot of personal doubts, but whenever I walked out the door, I never showed that,” Shrock says. “People had enough burden on them already, not knowing if they were going to have a job. They had mortgages. They had kids in school. They had car payments. They had credit cards. The last thing I wanted in their mind was this was not going to work.”
Flash forward. The U.S. auto industry has staged an amazing comeback, and the town’s largest employer, Chrysler, has pledged to invest nearly $1.3 billion into its plants here, added about 1,000 workers and helped boost Kokomo’s fortunes — it was honored in 2011 by the state chamber of commerce as Community of the Year.
But the resurrection of U.S. automakers has done little to resolve a deep political divide over the bailout. Democrats, led by President Barack Obama, call it an undeniable success. The Republican presidential candidates, most notably Mitt Romney, condemn it as government meddling, both unfair and unnecessary, and even some Indiana politicians agree.
To many folks in Kokomo, though, the political debate seems disconnected from this reality: Kokomo survives.
The auto bailout had winners and losers. Some towns lost plants; Kokomo’s were saved.
“I feel we were given a lifeline,” says Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who thanked the president when he visited Kokomo in 2010. “But do we now sit back in our easy chairs and say Chrysler’s good for the next five, 10 years? No. ... We can’t become content with just that. This is our chance to build on top of it.”
There’s much building to do. Unemployment in Kokomo — home to nearly 57,000 people — tops 10 percent and a network of local food pantries serves 1,100 families a month, mostly in the city, compared with 400 in the pre-recession days. Home foreclosure sales remain high.
But the real estate market is stronger; the average housing price in recent months has topped $70,000. The United Way’s community campaign last year raised almost $1.8 million — $80,000 more than its goal. More than 20 businesses have opened or expanded since 2010.
And yet, there’s still a wariness among some autoworkers.
“I think it’s too early to say that it’s completely worked,” says Brian Hecht, an 18-year Chrysler veteran and third-generation autoworker. “We need to prove to the taxpayers their loan to us was a good thing to do.”