Economic Restructuring Forces an Industrial City to Fight for Work

In the industrial city of Lima, Ohio, a struggle to overcome economic restructuring proved that hard-working local communities can have an impact on global business giants such as British Petroleum.

| March 2013

Economic restructuring can be the downfall of any industrial city. As corporations are continuously granted legal rights to seek profits, the towns serving them are left in the wake. In Rust Belt Resistance (Kent State University Press, 2012), author Perry Bush explores the ongoing saga between British Petroleum and Lima, Ohio.  The following excerpt from chapter one, "Local Communities Are No Match For Industrial Corporations," explains how an industrial city and its workers can stand up against the oil industry.

Lima, the county seat of Allen County, is a weathered industrial city of about forty thousand people, set against the flat and prosperous farmlands of northwest Ohio. It still possesses a certain charm. Local people can boast of a set of nearly new schools, a few grand old boulevards where the city’s early industrialists once lived, and wide, tree-lined streets with some of the cheapest housing of any similar place in America. Nonetheless, the city seems haunted by the question of whether, when its financial magnates left, they might have taken its best days with them. Even as fierce a defender as its longtime mayor remembers that when he first drove into Lima as a young man, his first impressions were of a beaten-down old city that “hadn't taken very good care of itself.” Three decades later Lima’s face still seems worn and gray, especially when compared with the tracts of comfortable housing developments on its edges. Lima’s urban thoroughfares are pockmarked with vacant lots and its most memorable physical characteristics are the number of railroad crossings that nearly barricade off its downtown. In fact, one cannot enter Lima without being reminded of the constant physical presence of trains. The city’s heart consists of two massive hospitals, some public buildings and a varied collection of small restaurants and businesses spread over about eight blocks, and a business district tenaciously holding on against the attractions of the malls in the suburbs west of town. It is the kind of town perennially described by outside journalists with words like “blue-collar” and “gritty.”

Lima is also an island in every sense except the strictly geographic. In the spring and summer, it is an urban island amidst limitless green fields of corn and soybeans. Economically and demographically, it remains an island of working-class sensibilities surrounded on all sides by middle-class suburbia. These are the “townships” that remain politically separate from the city while fully dependent on its services. The city is a political island as well, though one has to dig a bit deeper to fully see this. As the national left-leaning journal the Nation informed readers in 1996, Lima was “a rock-ribbed Republican bastion, a town that still brags of going for Goldwater in 1964.” In fact, that claim isn't true; Lima went for Johnson that year by a small margin. Even so, conservative political instincts still run deep across Allen County and have been reinforced for decades by the city’s newspaper, the Lima News, which for a generation now has served as a faithful, steady fount of libertarian free-market ideology. On the other hand, amidst the vast sea of Republican governments that dominate northwest Ohio, Lima’s residents have, for more than two decades, retained enough blue-collar roots to regularly elect a feisty and progressive Democrat as their mayor. Not surprisingly, the city’s newspaper and its mayor have generally locked horns, except for one short period, the greatest crisis in the city’s modern history, when they joined in an unlikely but effective partnership.

Lima is an island in another way, too, one that can be fully appreciated only by traveling south on Main Street from the business district, over the Ottawa River, past increasingly ramshackle homes to stand on a railway overpass. There to the west, just south of the city limits, unfolds a truly alien world. It is a scene that could be lifted from a futuristic movie: huge sculpted scaffolds of pipes emerging from fields of asphalt, dozens of valves emitting steam, blue flames flaring into the sky, all tended by a uniformed army in hard hats. The functionaries of this world speak in a whole different vocabulary, conversing knowledgeably of matters like the cat cracker, alkylation, throughput, and BPDs. At night the place burns with the glitter of a thousand orange lights while the machinery throbs on relentlessly. Local people tell the story of a visitor to the city who was once staying in a motel west of town. He woke up in the middle of the night, saw an immense orange glow on the southern horizon, and immediately concluded that half the city was on fire. Only after he had jumped into his car and driven to the south edge of town did he realize that Lima was not on fire. It was only another normal working night at the city’s oil refinery.



Perhaps it is the immensity of the place, along with its bizarre panorama, that has secured for the refinery such a prominent place in both the local economy and the city’s very identity. It is the largest single taxpayer in the county, the biggest single consumer of local water and electricity, and, with a payroll of upwards of $31 million, one of the largest local employers. But there is more to it than that. The plant has operated continually since the days of John D. Rockefeller, more than a century ago. Succeeding generations of local people have worked there, often generations of the same families, and most of them have lived and spent their salaries in the Lima community. Through such ties, the plant has so deeply cemented itself into the unspoken consciousness of the city as to become something close to iconic. “It’s one of foundations of the city,” a refinery staffer observed. “It’s like it’s in peoples’ blood or something… you’re always aware of its presence.” A drawing of an oil derrick and the “eternal flame” of the refinery dominates the city’s flag.

Finally, the very presence of the city’s refinery means that Lima stands out as an island of possibility in the larger landscape of deindustrializing America. For many similar communities around the world, this has become a relatively bleak and barren terrain. By all standard logic of the era—and especially by the intentions of British Petroleum (BP), the longtime owner of Lima’s refinery—the sprawling facility on the south edge of town should no longer exist. In the mid-1990s, over the anguished but seemingly futile protests of local people, BP decided that the plant no longer fit into its current corporate profile and moved to shut it down. At that time, BP was one of the most powerful and wealthy corporations in the world, and Lima had already been so staggered by successive waves of plant closings that it had come to symbolize the national economic dislocation of the “rust belt.” The refinery—and, to some degree, the larger Lima region—stood poised to join a hundred other such locales already carelessly discarded onto the industrial scrap heap. Yet Lima’s refinery did not close. It continues to pump out oil and generate wealth, to the benefit of both its corporate owner and the regional economy. It does so because of the strenuous efforts of a range of dedicated people, both inside and outside the plant gates, who were determined to secure for themselves a different future than the one dictated by BP. The story of how they succeeded reveals previously hidden possibilities in an era of deindustrialization. What if corporate decisions are not immutable and absolute? What if communities can still imagine themselves, at least to some degree, as masters of their own fates?