Coal Country, PA has a long history of domestic production industries since obsoleted by globalism and cheap foreign labor. The landscape of the rolling Appalachians is blighted by small, broken towns, once booming bastions of American Industry reduced to a pandemic of drug abuse and detritus. It is far from uncommon for the hollow husks of these towns’ former savior production plants, factories and warehouses to remain as somber, derelict reminders of the industries that abandoned them.
In 1904 a young entrepreneur in the heyday of America’s Industrial Revolution recognized opportunity in the Schuylkill region of Pennsylvania. He constructed his first textiles plant to capitalize on the otherwise untapped skilled labor potential of the area, followed soon after by $100,000 investments in the early and mid 1910’s for larger brick fabrication plants. Under the stress of World War the company reached its apex, providing jobs to both returning soldiers and a pool of labor trickling in from an anemic coal industry. Both employing the majority of the regional population and investing generously in the community from which it attained its labor pool, what began as a simple underwear factory enabled an otherwise isolated county to thrive.
Revolutionary cultural and economic shifts birthed in the many movements of the 1970’s marked the beginning of an arduous end for American textiles manufacturing as a whole. Unionization of garment industry labor forces squeezed higher wages from companies’ overhead, and paired with new Federal interventions in the form of environmental protection statutes, fees intended to preserve the Schuylkill river and county overall pressured the company’s capacity to remain competitive with rising threats of cheap labor and goods entering a global market scene from the likes of China, Mexico and new non-union textiles plants emerging in the Southern United States.
By 1984 a third of the company’s workforce had been laid off, and in attempt to anticipate its own diminishing market relevance offered voluntary early retirements to employees. Lower taxes, wages and benefit obligations among Southern States created an impossible environment for the company to remain competitive in. Saddled by unions, EPA fines and oversight, and unable to invest in new production machinery and equipment to remain market relevant, return on investment evaporated, and the company would hemorrhage hopelessly for the next 13 years.
In 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, marked the killing blow for the American textiles industry. Solvent and successful businesses immediately abandoned the taxed and unionized domestic producers and capitalized on the cheap and plentiful labor available to them in the third world. After a decade of debilitating anemia, the textiles plant closed in 1997, extending benefits and job training to the remaining 89 laborers and ending a 93 tradition of garment manufacturing and community investment.
Abandoned for 13 years, the property decayed alongside the quality of the township it formerly benefited. Marred by vandalism and regular arson, it was quickly categorized a blighted property and became the ire of the community. The only sniff of hope amid crumbling brick, ash and broken glass was a proposal from an out of town developer notorious for re-purposing cheap, blighted properties into low-rent and senior residential housing. Plans have since been stonewalled by a multitude of outstanding leins and zoning variance complications.
The plant was an economic powerhouse that carried an isolated township into the Industrial Revolution. It clothed the soldiers of two World Wars and conflicts in East Asia and, despite overwhelming economic pressures imposed by changing labor dynamics and Federal intervention, refused to back down from its investments and obligations to bettering the community to which it owed its skilled labor force. Because of outsourced labor and importing cheaper foreign goods, it now rots and crumbles under its own weight, much like the township left with no choice but to abandon its goods for the offerings of infectious commercial giants whose offerings will only benefit foreign manufacturing economies until the unemployed workforce can no longer afford to purchase even the cheapest in foreign goods.