275 Winchester Avenue in New Haven, CT is a dark, hollow building filled with trash and debris. Its windows are shattered and smeared with dirt. Twisted barbed wire surrounds the once grand 80-acre facility. US Repeating Arms Co., closed in late March of this year, after 140 years of producing Winchester rifles, “The Gun that Won the West.” It was a gun from another time, when the hardy frontiersman still stood tall. Now Winchester rifles are produced at a much smaller location two streets away. Guns are more a matter of recreation than defense these days. Americans don’t need to defend the homestead anymore. Rifles and shotguns are no longer in demand.
Nor, it seems, is manufacturing. The empty Winchester factory is just one of several industrial carcasses that haunt the Science Park area. Each empty husk is a reminder that the city is moving on. New Haven, like Newark, like Camden, like so many Rust Belt cities, is remaking itself in a new image, one that will enable the city to prosper in an age of global competition.
At the start of the 19th century, manufacturing was prominent in New Haven. The industry, best known for producing carriages and firearms, was innovative and constantly growing. New Haven was home to such manufacturers as James Petries, inventor of the automobile self-starter in 1900; Fred Caroll, who built the first calculator in 1905; Alfred Carlton Gilbert, manufacturer of magic trick box sets and founder of America’s largest toy manufacturing company in 1941; and James Wright, who synthesized Nutty Putty as a cheap alternative to rubber during WWII. But in the years following WWII, manufacturing took a downturn. As New Haven found itself threatened by cheap, inexhaustible labor in the global south, its manufacturers began closing their doors. In Connecticut, between January 1998 and March 2004, 62,700 manufacturing jobs were lost, about one in every five jobs.
To put it mildly, manufacturers in New Haven today face daunting challenges. Nicholas Lavorato, Organizational Development Manager of Applied Engineering Products, says the main problem the manufacturing industry faces is high labor costs. “You can have something manufactured in New Haven ending up costing 32 dollars, and somewhere in the third world, it only costs 7 dollars. How competitive can we be?” The question indicates both economic and psychological woes. The decline of manufacturing in New Haven is not only indicative of the restructuring of America’s economy; it also symbolizes a departure from the notion of the “American dream,” that America is the only country where immigrants can become wealthy and prosperous. People can “make it” elsewhere now. China has its own Starbucks coffee shops and Pizza Huts. Indian is building its own Silicon Valley in Bangalore. As Bill Desrosiers, the president of the New Haven Manufacturers Association (NHMA) laments, New Haven is “competing with almost every country in the world.” Burdened by a relatively high minimum wage and comparatively stringent labor laws, New Haven manufacturers have little likelihood of winning this competition.
But New Haven manufacturers and manufacturing advocates are nonetheless relentlessly optimistic about the industry’s prospects. “Manufacturing is not dead,” they say, “Manufacturing is alive and well.” “Manufacturing still has a lot of zip in it,” they claim, even when statistics seem to indicate the just the opposite.
Manufacturers and manufacturing advocates in New Haven are a nostalgic group, all professing a desire to return to a simpler time when they only had to worry about competing with other Americans. They are trying to knit their peers into a community, forming the kind of close relationships that are the antithesis of the globalized economy that confronts them. They believe they can pull manufacturing back from the abyss.
This is the explicit mission of the New Haven Manufacturers Association. Desrosiers talks passionately about the NHMA and its projects. He speaks about upcoming events with animation, and eagerly discusses his hopes that more and more manufacturers will attend meetings and get involved. He reminds me of a father hoping children will show up at his child’s birthday party. He believes that the NHMA can guide manufacturers to success. Every two weeks, the association organizes a lunch meeting for area manufacturers. “We’re there to exchange information that helps us grow independently,” he says. The members validate this claim. Paul Lewis, director of Sargent Locks, echoes Desrosiers. Lewis says that being a member of NHMA has been an “educational process” where he has been able to “communicate and learn.”
Jerry Clupper is the Executive Director of NHMA and also works as a management consultant, which is apparent in the way he talks about how manufacturing in New Haven can improve. He identifies goals in bullet point form, exhorting manufacturing companies to check them off one by one. First: “Identity your business processes as well as your Manufacturing processes and then we’ll start from there.” Second: “Understand the total business enterprise, whether its lean type efficiency projects or whether its development of new products.” Finally: “Learn from quality systems that have been started.”
By all accounts, Clupper is the voice of manufacturing in New Haven. No matter what question I had, or who I asked it of, the reply was inevitably “Have you talked to Jerry Clupper?” He is blessed with a captivating voice, but says he hates to “sell” people. He is sentimental, but his convictions seem genuine. He says he believes that NHMA’s work “can really change people’s lives and change the way people look not only at their jobs but also themselves.”
Gerry Ward of CONNSTEP, which labels itself “Connecticut’s manufacturing resource center,” is also trying to connect manufacturers. He is experimenting with a weekly Internet radio program. Though Ward jokes he isn’t “as polished as Tom Brokaw,” he feels excited about the way the radio program is bringing people together. He knows the task he has set before himself is a difficult one. He says manufacturing “is as tough a business as you can get.” But he and other manufacturers and manufacturing advocates beat on nonetheless.
In the current economy, manufacturers must depend on the city to subsidize their costs if they want to succeed. While Tony Bialecki, Deputy Director of New Haven’s Office of Economic Development, says that the city ‘helps facilitate whatever programs and whatever technical assistance we can help with,” he also acknowledges that the role of manufacturing in the New Haven economy has “definitely decreased.” It is “getting harder” for New Haven to compete with other manufacturing cities and the rest of the world. Bialecki says the city has an overall strategy that focuses on three emerging sectors: education, the arts and health care. New Haven is clearly no longer a city driven by manufacturing companies, but rather by what academic heavyweights like Yale have to offer. Manufacturing will stand on the sidelines, though Bialecki hints that traces of it will always remain. But now it is the stuff of legend, not of profits. The closing of the Winchester firearms factory in New Haven this year will not erase “the Gun that Won the West” from America’s memory, though the company’s prominence will be greatly diminished. Similarly, Biakecki indicates that the manufacturing community in New Haven will always hold a place of honor in this city, like so many old-time heroes past their prime but having earned the reverence and respect of the younger generation. As Bialecki says, the city will not abandon “the group of people who been working in manufacturing for a long time. A lot of them live here in New Haven and contribute to the economy.” Although he is quick to add, “But we are realistic. There are global challenges that we won’t be able to deal with ourselves.”
Will manufacturing merely be an industry of the past, the stuff of fireside legend, or does it have a chance to find a new niche in the 21st century? Manufacturers and manufacturing advocates believe that their industry may find its niche in the burgeoning biotech industry of New Haven, which is rapidly replacing the crumbling factories of the Science Park area adjacent to Yale University’s Science Hill.
David Clem is the managing director of Lyme Properties, a private biotech developer that plans to revitalize and reinvent the long-neglected Science Park area. This is not the first time such an idea has been posited. In the early 1980s there was an attempted revamp of Science Park, an effort to provide the community with jobs in the high-tech field. But businesses did not come calling and the area began to decay.
Then, in the first few years of this decade, there was another attempted revamp, one which is still taking place today. In 2000, Lyme projected that the area would be built into a complex of about 2.5 million square feet of mixed-use space. Roughly half of the space would be devoted to biotechnology companies, while the rest would be for office tenants, light-manufacturing firms and service retailers such as restaurants and coffee shops. But more than five years down the line, the development of Science Park has not been as efficient as Lyme had hoped. “The economic forces in New Haven are limited and the demand for lab space is small,” Clem says. “There has simply not been a lot of growth within the existing life science companies over the last four years.”
Lyme is still in the midst of its projected plan, and at this stage, the Science Park is bizarre to behold. The buildings that Lyme Properties has developed, painted in inharmonious shades of pastel, stand right next to the old guard of abandoned factories. Science Park is currently both purple and grey; new and old; very clean and very dirty.
“This stuff doesn’t happen overnight,” explains New Haven City Planner Karyn Gil-varg, when asked about the current state of the project.
She tells me that Science Park is being developed into a biotech center modeled after success stories like One Kendall Square in Cambridge, another development of Lyme Properties which many biotech companies scrambled to be a part of. The idea is that the best place for a biotech company to be is next to the world’s best universities, two of which are Harvard and Yale. Researchers and workers have the benefit of being close to Yale’s science facilities. “If you want to consult someone from a lab, you can just run over,” Gilvarg notes.
But Science Park is haunted by the memory of the collapse of manufacturing. Clem says that Lyme has struggled to convince “the local brokerage community, office tenants, and even Yale to consider Science Park, given its history.” He says, “Surveys of Yale personnel, students and administrators show that the old image of Science Park is hard to overcome.” People remember the decay and the rust, the barbed wire and the piles of bricks, the shattered glass and the shattered dreams. “It used to be hell around here,” says Ernest, on the 186 Winchester employees who recently lost their jobs. Consequently, there is still much to be done and many spaces to be filled in Science Park. Currently there are many empty facilities. Science Park, it seems, is still up for grabs.
Manufacturers and manufacturing advocates feel that manufacturing can play a role in Science Park. But it would be a new kind of manufacturing. Jeff Blodgett, Vice President of research at the Connecticut Economic Research Center (CERC), describes it as a movement from “a brawn manufacturing process to a brain manufacturing process.” Bruce Alexander, who was hired by Yale President Richard Levin to head the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, says the same. “The manufacturing base of the country has been shrinking,” he says. “It’s mostly in specialized or high tech kind of manufacturing where there’s any growth in that industry.”
Having manufacturing facilities alongside biotech facilities would bring more diversity to the area, which is situated near a residential neighborhood. Robert Orr, an architect whose firm is involved with town planning and designed, among other structures, the Yale Boat House in New Haven and the New Hartford Memorial Library, envisions a Science Park area where business is mixed with residential living. He points to the city of Pienza in Italy to say that if done correctly, “the denser it gets, the better it gets.” He admires “Live/Work” buildings where the ground floor is a business or retail and the upstairs is where the business owner lives, and praises its flexibil-ity. “You don’t have to have retail there. You could rent it out and if your neighborhood gets to the point where it might be beneficial to have a coffee shop or general store, it’s set up for that.” Orr is not involved with Science Park’s architectural planning, but he speaks from the perspective of a New Havenite eager to witness change in an area that has been an eyesore for so long.
Alan Plattus, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture, also hopes to see Science Park developing into more of a mixed-use space. He thinks that there can be a “reintegration of the whole [Science Park] area. Right now, it feels like a “black hole in terms of normal day-to-day life.”
Clem hopes that Lyme’s initial projection of the Science Park area being a mixed-use space will become a reality. He says that employees want the feeling of bustling activity where they work. “It is difficult to attract all of the uses in the first phase, since, for example, retail needs a critical mass to succeed. But once a site gets momentum, and everyone understands the vision can make a difference, it has been my experience that synergistic things begin to happen in positive ways.”
Gilvarg is also enthusiastic about the mixed-space approach. She believes that manufacturing can exist in Science Park, that the area does not need to be filled solely by biotech facilities. She feels that Science Park could even be “an incubator” where manufacturing companies can start up in the area before moving on to the “next level where they need bigger space.” The manufacturing companies that would work well in Science Park are of course those that can supply hardware to the biotech industry.
Lavorato agrees. He says most people still think of manufacturing as “a grimy, greasy tube factory.” “Manufacturing is much broader than that,” he says. “Antidotes for bird flu still fall under manufacturing.” Manufacturing in New Haven may have the opportunity to be a part of a developing city space. To be successful, it will move into a world of science, a far cry from the traditional imagery of guns and automobiles wrought from the sweat of working men. Manufacturing will enter a new realm, where it will be a small part of something much larger and where connections between industries will be more important than ever.
During WWI, the Winchester Arms Company was at its peak, supplying ammunition for the war. 20,000 workers lived in the surrounding neighborhood and would walk to work every day. Each day they would pass underneath an arched entrance of an enormous, welcoming red brick building. Life was good, poor men made decent wages, and the city flourished. There are some in New Haven who want nothing more than the return of these good old days. But New Haven is different now, as America is different now, and if manufacturing is to find a place in the new economy it will have to evolve to meet this economy’s demands.