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Old 11-12-2009, 10:34 AM
Franc Tireur Franc Tireur is offline
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Rural U.S. towns struggle as big employers shut down

After more than an hour talking about how awful business has been of late, Pete Van Straten, 52, jerks a thumb at the telephone sitting on the desk behind his younger brother, George.

"Have you heard that phone ring in the last hour?" he asks a visitor. "Two years ago that phone was ringing off the hook and we couldn't keep up with orders. Now, it's dead."

Based on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula region, Van Straten Brothers Inc has built everything from forklifts to bridges for the lumber and construction industries. Those industries have been hammered by the recession.

The biggest blow to the Van Stratens has come from their main customer, Terex Corp -- the world's No. 3 maker of earth-moving equipment and the biggest employer in Baraga County. Terex is closing its local factory by year's end.

The brothers have cut down their staff to 12 from 60 and say they are in survival mode for the business their father started out of his garage in the 1960s.

"We're hunkering down," Pete said. "We've always been debt free, so we're hanging on. But we can't hold on forever."

What's going on in Baraga and the rest of the Upper Peninsula, or UP, mirrors the slow burn that the recession has made through hundreds of small rural U.S. towns.

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