Chris Sitter faced an identity crisis along with his hometown of after the local General Motors plant closed.
The Janesville father of three was laid off on a snowy day in December 2008 from Lear Corp., where he had made front seats for GM vehicles for 16 years.
"I saw the tears that last day. I couldn't wait to get out of there, to be honest," Sitter said in his Janesville apartment. "I made a decision in my head to myself, that when I went back to school, I would find something that I loved doing."
Sitter and Janesville's leaders have struggled in similar ways over the past four years to reinvent themselves. The city's economy, long reliant on auto jobs, has recovered slowly as a distribution hub and, in part, with government aid.
'Tragic' day arrives
At its peak in the 1970s, Detroit-based GM employed more than 7,000 people at its Janesville assembly plant, which made trucks. Other companies like parts suppliers, distributors and custom vehicle detailers, supported the plant.
Long rumored as a potential casualty of GM's attempt to shed its label as a fuel-inefficient automaker, the Janesville factory was idled in the midst of the company's failed attempt to stave off bankruptcy. The decision sent a shock wave through the community as 11,000 jobs, nearly 10 percent of Rock County's workforce, disappeared in a single month, said Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville.
"It was tragic," said Cullen, who co-chaired a task force that tried to entice GM to stay. Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was also on the committee.
"Paul did a lot of things, had a lot of meetings, met with a lot of GM people," Cullen said, adding that the task force came up with a large incentive package for the automaker. "The thing that impressed me was that he never put out a press release. He never tried to take credit for an individual act. He was just trying to win."
Ryan, who has publicly opposed corporate bailouts, also voted for a GM federal aid package in late 2008 as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
The effort to keep the automaker in Janesville ultimately failed, and the only signs of life at the 226-acre facility today are growing weeds in the parking lot and GM security guards who patrol the perimeter.
Stimulating the economy
In the years since the closure, the federal and state government has stepped in to help Janesville's recovery.
The city won a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, one of President Barack Obama's main stimulus programs, to build an innovation center on the south side. Construction crews were hard at work, pounding nails atop forklifts on a recent afternoon.
SHINE Technologies, a maker of non-nuclear isotopes for medical treatments, has committed to building a facility in Janesville and creating 150 jobs. The project moved forward partially because of $10 million from the National Nuclear Security Administration, said John Beckord, president of the pro-business group Forward Janesville.
"In the case of SHINE, it was critical for that company to move their project forward," said Beckord, a Ryan supporter. "The innovation center would not likely have been built without that grant."
The Janesville economy, which one entrepreneur described as "40 percent back" from prerecession levels, has seen a number of high-profile expansion projects in the years since GM left.
The city has become a distribution hub, and a massive GM parts facility left vacant on the south side is now nearly fully leased, Beckord said. Trucks were arriving and departing the warehouse as Beckord checked off the improvements.
Development opportunity awards
The state also came to Janesville's aid in the years after the auto crisis, creating the Janesville Development Opportunity Zone and giving the city $5 million in tax credits to help create jobs, said Vic Grassman, the city's economic development director.
More than $2 million has been distributed over the past two years, and the state has pledged to renew the grants for another five years if the program is successful, Grassman said.
Part of the tax credit money went to Fab-Masters, a custom metal fabricator that got $28,000 to move into a facility that had been abandoned by a vehicle detailing company that followed GM out of town.
The money has allowed the company to hire 24 employees with the hope of reaching a payroll of 30 soon, Vice President Brian Hollis said.
"Other than that money, we'd still be struggling," Hollis said, as welders cut metal to order in the shop behind him. "If we can stay in our own small town and create more jobs for our city, that's a bonus for us. We'd rather stay in Janesville. We like it here."