Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An idea for Merrill's future

Merrill needs jobs if it to keep from becoming a bedroom community. One of the solutions, I believe, is small-scale and artisan manufacturing. Merrill currently has both barriers and advantages that will effect the success of this idea, but I believe that the barriers can be overcome and Merrill can look forward to an even brighter future.

Everyone who lives in Merrill has noticed that it isn't the major manufacturing hub it once was. Unemployment hovers at 11% in Merrill, and many people that are employed are employed in Wausau or even further away.

Small-scale and artisan manufacturing could, I believe, help solve both the unemployment problem and prevent another catastrophic loss of jobs in the future. People are turning away from mass-produced foreign goods because of recent safety scares. They are also looking for products that will last longer than the “made out of the cheapest materials possible” products at most big-box retailers. People want products that last and are willing to pay a premium for them. Small scale and artisan manufacturing are primed to fill this growing niche; with advances like rapid prototyping, computer controlled machining, open-source CAD programs, and home vacuum forming, it's easy to see how one of a kind and limited run products could be produced in a very small shop. Artisanal products can be manufactured by hand, and no two pieces will be alike.

There are some barriers to creating a small-scale and artisan manufacturing base in Merrill, however. First, many young, highly educated people who can design products for small scale and artisanal manufacturing and can sell the products don't stay/come back to Merrill after they get their college diploma. The limited dining options (I love Chips and Champs as much as the next gal, but Merrill doesn't really have any business-casual restaurants), the limited entertainment options (again, I love the Cosmo but one awesome movie theater and a couple of bars that book good bands does not for a vibrant entertainment scene make), the fact that outside the downtown area Merrill started to sprawl and is not pedestrian friendly (I'm looking at you, east side by 51), and the fact that downtown Merrill closes at 5 (?!?) are all reasons that young professionals don't stick around.

The other barrier to building a good small scale manufacturing base is the numbers game. Where a major manufacturer would employ several hundred people in one fell swoop, it would require 50-100 small manufacturers to employ the same amount.

Fortunately, there are several advantages Merrill currently has working for it when it comes to setting something like this in motion. First, Merrill has a skilled, motivated workforce that understands the rigors of manufacturing well. It would require some re-training, but many of the skills that have been learned by the workforce at the large manufacturers would cross over. Second, Merrill has started on a plan of riverfront and downtown revitalization, that I am hopeful will greatly improve the “curb appeal” of the city. Third, Merrill's cost of living is quite low when compared to most of the state, let alone much of the country. Merrill's low cost of living would allow people to take lower salaries than they would elsewhere while still keeping the same quality - or better – of life.

And there are ways to overcome the barriers to making this work. Merrill should continue downtown revitalization and riverfront development, and work to retain the remaining historic character of the downtown. Buildings need to be remodeled instead of torn down, even if the cost of remodeling would sometimes exceed the worth of the building; our historic buildings are worth more than just their dollar value. They bring added ambiance to the town, and help make Merrill feel like it has roots.

Businesses should be encouraged to stay open later. When I moved back to Merrill after 12 years in California, I was shocked to find the entire downtown closed at 5. Many people work until then; staying open until 7 would be a wonderful boon for the whole community (encouraging more pedestrian traffic downtown and having more places to eat would be nice too...)

Merrill should market itself as a place where small manufacturers can thrive, and as a place where young professionals can not only enjoy themselves but also feel safe. Merrill has many problems facing it as it continues to struggle with its identity and future, and one of the solutions that it should look at is small-scale and artisan manufacturing. I truly believe that with some hard work and dedication Merrill can become a vibrant place to live and work for everyone in the community.