Manufacturing in Broome: Looking Back, Moving Forward

By Erika Mahoney

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February 27, 2014 Updated Feb 27, 2014 at 6:30 PM EST

(WBNG Binghamton) The 20th century in American history is known for dramatic industrial growth.

Decades before 1900, Broome County was already an important piece of that industrial puzzle.

"Brand new buildings going up, factories about a block away, trains, trolleys," Broome County Historian Gerald Smith said. "If you see photographs of the time, you'll see hundreds of people out on the streets, especially during lunch time as they poured out of the factories to eat."

Circa 1870, it was all about manufacturing cigars. With more than 70 factories in Binghamton, the city ranked only behind the Big Apple as a prime producer.

Soon, cigarettes became the new trend, so shoes walked in. The Endicott-Johnson Shoe Corporation took off running. By the 1940s, more than 20,000 people worked for the company, tapping out 52 million pairs of shoes every year.

During World War II, IBM revolutionized the manufacturing of data retrieval devices quickly becoming the leading employer with its first plant in Endicott.

"I wanted to work at IBM because it was my dream job," said Joe Titti, a former IBM employee. "Coming from the Scranton area and a coal miner's son, I knew that IBM was going to be the job that I wanted to retire from."

Also during World War II, Link Aviation ramped up its production of flight simulators, forever changing the aviation and simulation industries.

Local companies thrived on the demands of the American defense market, including EJ, who produced combat boots. But then, the Soviet Union fell.

"We thought the Cold War was going to go on forever, and of course, it didn't," Smith said. "And once the Soviet Union fell and the Cold War ended, so did those government contracts, and we weren't prepared."

Jobs dissolved and companies moved out, a hard reality for much of the region, later deemed the "rust belt region."

What remained in Broome was a community lost in transition.

"The bulk of the loss of manufacturing jobs has been happening over the last thirty years," Broome County Commissioner of Planning and Economic Development Elaine Miller said. "It's sad to hear people say they want to bring it back to what it used to be. If you're talking about bringing it back to a level of vibrancy that we used to have, that's what we truly want. We're not necessarily going to be going back to stores in downtown, in our manufacturing heyday with EJ and Ansco and cigar manufacturing. But we're looking forward to the future with high tech manufacturing and light manufacturing."

Despite the Cold War meltdown, the wheels of manufacturing keep on turning. Despite the fact Broome County has lost tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs over the past thirty years, Miller says the sector is still one of the strongest economic drivers in the Southern Tier.

"We want to hang on to what we have first of all. Projections are that we will continue to lose manufacturing, although not at the rate we have been losing it in the past."

According to the New York State Department of Labor, about 34,100 people in the Binghamton Metropolitan Statistical Area held manufacturing jobs in 1990. While that number dipped to about 12,000 this year, Broome County still has a higher concentration of manufacturing jobs compared to other MSAs in the country.

Miller adds there's a high need for skilled manufacturers, but admits the county needs to do a better job at matching people with the demands of the industry.

There are about 170 manufacturing firms in Broome County, according to the Broome County Industrial Development Agency.

Universal Instruments in Conklin started in 1919 and continues to find success today.

"So Universal Instruments is a company that started in 1919, making safety pins," Scott Gerhart, Vice President of Global Services for Universal Instruments, said. "And over the years, working with local technology companies, such as IBM, we migrated into the electronic assembly business and today we are a leading provider of electronic assembly equipment for companies like Apple, Google, IBM."

In every iPhone5, there's a piece of Broome County. The machines Universal Instruments designs and manufactures in Greater Binghamton assemble the more than 2,000 microscopic components of the device.

"Universal Instruments is really pleased to be a part of Broome County, the Greater Binghamton area," Gerhart said. "We find the workforce here to be absolutely stellar, folks that are so hard working, well-trained, very capable. We believe we have the most competitive workforce in the world."

Miller says the county believes in the value of manufacturing, the jobs it creates, and the prospect of a rebound, especially with reshoring, or bringing businesses back to the United States, on the horizon.

The characteristics of what made Broome County a viable location for innovation still stand. As outlined in the Broome County Comprehensive Plan, strengths include the county's proximity to major markets in the Northeast, its geographic access and its strong agriculture and health care community.

But time takes a toll and challenges include a lack of sites and buildings that meet current industrial standards, and an aging workforce.

Fortunately, one economic driver that is gaining ground alongside the surge in services is stamped with moderate to high local potential in the comprehensive plan and aiming to welcome young people.

That would be education.

"The students that come out of Binghamton University have a tremendous amount of drive and grit," Binghamton University President Dr. Harvey Stenger said. "I think their entrepreneurial skills, once we tap them, are going to be the kind of skills that you might not have in another location."

SUNY Broome will have a presence in the incubator too and continues to offer classes in manufacturing.

"Students of today are looking at future technologies," Debra Morello, Vice President of Student and Economic Development at SUNY Broome, said. "A lot of the reasons that companies have had difficulty in the community is they didn't stay current, they didn't know how to bring their products to the marketplace, and we try to stay very, very cutting-edge. We use things like social media; we're doing a return of back to basics with our students. Math skills are critical in this day and age and manufacturing companies need those math skills."

No one has a magic eight ball when it comes to the economy, but people believe in Broome.

Take Susan Sherwood for instance, who runs TechWorks!, a place to experience innovation, past, present and future. It's located in an old ice cream factory.

'"I think there's a hidden vibrancy in Binghamton," Sherwood said.

Amidst the artifacts of Broome's industrial past, she sees beyond what was.

"This community has a patent rate of double the national average. And that's important, that's key. It means that the manufacturing jobs may have gone, but the ideas are here. The engineers are here. The creativity is still here."

She sees the shells of old shoe plants and old cigar factories as the core of Broome; the bottom line for what the county builds on and will continue to build on.