South Bend received some national attention Thursday afternoon for efforts to transform the city’s image from a place that used to make cars into a center for new technology.
The NPR program "All Things Considered" aired a segment about South Bend as part of the NPR Cities Project — a series that began Monday on the future of urban life.
The report looks at South Bend as an example of what happens to a company town when its top employer — in this case, Studebaker — is no longer there.
Sonari Glinton, an NPR reporter based in Detroit, came here a couple of months ago to conduct interviews for the story, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s communications director, Debra Johnson, said.
Glinton starts his report at the corner of Bronson Street and Lafayette Boulevard, next to Studebaker’s old headquarters.
"There’s almost no place in town where you can escape the ghost of Studebaker — the company that made its home here for 115 years," Glinton says of the automaker that grew up making wagons and shut down in 1963.
"Some of the old-timers talk about it like it just happened. That’s one of the amazing things," Buttigieg tells Glinton during the segment. "There are some parts of town where you’d think the closure of Studebaker was something that happened a couple of years ago, not 50."
Glinton goes on in the seven-minute piece to describe how South Bend lost a third of its population in the years after Studebaker collapsed and how officials are trying to leverage the infrastructure left by heavy industry to grow tech jobs.
He also notes that Buttigieg — who is 30 but "could easily pass for 17" — is South Bend’s first mayor who was born after Studebaker closed.
Buttigieg takes Glinton for a drive and shows him Ignition Park, where city officials have spent millions of dollars in recent years to clear old Studebaker buildings and make room for what they hope will be high-tech businesses.
The mayor explains how fiber-optic lines that run along rail corridors, relatively inexpensive utility costs and a cold climate — which lessens the need for air conditioning — are great selling points in the tech sector.
Glinton then tours Union Station — the old rail depot that businessman Kevin Smith has turned into a data center. Smith is also looking at expanding across the railroad tracks to a former Studebaker assembly plant.
"All of this is a big gamble," Glinton says. "The kind of thing South Bend hasn’t tried in the last 50 years."
He closes by stating that South Bend’s story is the story of many American cities where fortunes were tied largely to one company.
"In South Bend, it was Studebaker; in Flint, Michigan, it was General Motors," Glinton says. "The mayor of South Bend says the good thing is that the worst thing that could have happened to South Bend already happened 50 years ago."
Staff writer Kevin Allen: