Photo: Amy Voigt for the Toledo Blade

In my final week reporting for the Toledo Blade, I was sent to stay for a week in Monroe, Michigan—population 19,700—to trace the town’s local economic history following the slow-motion shuttering of its landmark paper mill industry. Spending days knocking on doors of local businesses, I noticed the recurring narrative of redefinition as a driving force behind the town’s resurgent economy, and focused my piece on that thread.

‘A lot of hope here’: Officials, locals see promise in Monroe's future

Toledo Blade, Sept. 13 2019

MONROE — Government officials, industry analysts, and Wall Street brokers see the economy through consumer confidence, stock prices, and real gross domestic product.

Chuck Shy, 51, sees it through locks.

Through this lens, the turn of the 21st century was good to the local economy of Monroe, Mich., population 19,700. Mr. Shy, a locksmith at Monroe Lock & Safe, tended to locals’ frequent requests of street cuffs for Indian Motorcycle and Harley-Davidson rides, and lock accessories for speedboats — “buying their toys,” Mr. Shy called it.


But then the 2008 financial crisis hit, and those toys were sold off one by one.

Still, business at Monroe Lock & Safe boomed. Foreclosures skyrocketed, and at the crisis’s worst, the local bank would have Mr. Shy going into and re-keying homes for repossessions eight times a week. Then the bread-and-butter, give-me-the-cheapest-lock-you-have type of work stayed for a while. Now, Mr. Shy is seeing an uptick in the interesting things again: higher-end push-in code locks, Bluetooth-enabled locks, ignition rekeying for classic car purchases. A good sign.

“You don’t stop to think about it,” he said, “but everything has a lock.”

Mr. Shy, who now runs Monroe Lock, has experienced the ebb and flow of the nation’s economy, like every business owner. Adapting to each valley and peak proves difficult. For Mr. Shy, it meant an entire reinvention of his presence in Monroe: with a surplus of retail options, like Amazon, to buy everything including locks, Mr. Shy is no longer just selling a product or service, but an image. He’s revamped the look of his store with new signage, decorations, and a candy bowl, and even takes to Instagram to advertise with GIFs.

Adaptation and reinvention is not just a choice, but a necessity for local economic success, especially in small towns with an industrial heritage like Monroe. Once propped up and made nationally relevant by the paper and automotive industry, the entire city of Monroe knows redefinition all too well.

Slow-motion shuttering

Monroe was founded in 1785, though then it was called Frenchtown; one of many nondescript small settlements in what was then the United States’ western frontier. Frenchtown, though, took on a more significant role during the War of 1812. 

In what became known as the Battle of the River Raisin, a joint British and American Indian force fell upon a ragged group of American soldiers in January, 1813. Nearly 400 Americans were killed, 550 taken prisoner, and dozens more massacred the next day by the American Indian warriors. 

After lending its name to a bloody battle, the River Raisin continued to play a central role in Monroe’s history. The river’s mouth was a breeding ground for lotus beds; nurseries became the city’s first major industry and inspired Monroe’s nickname, the “Floral City.” In the 20th century, the River Raisin was flanked with paper mills, specializing in corrugated boxes and employing thousands. At least 14 paper product manufacturers were established, with most opening around 1910 before closing five or six decades later.

“I’m not going to say it was devastating,” said Earl Navarre, 78, who worked at Consolidated Paper Co., a major manufacturer that opened in 1921 and employed 1,600 before being torn down in 1978.

Still, the impact of the mills’ closures — the slow-motion shuttering of the city’s landmark industry — reverberated around the city. Mr. Navarre — who traces his roots in Monroe to the first white settlers — had put 13 years of work into the plant at the time of its closure. Luckily, a Ford Motor Co. plant had opened down the road, and many workers transferred directly over.

Monroe Ford Motor Stamping manufactured bumpers, headlights, and wheels. It became the city’s largest employer, with more than 3,500 workers at its peak, before ceasing production in 2008 — another major blow to the small city.

For long the city shared in U.S. prosperity through its manufacturing golden age. City officials in 1962 predicted a population increase from 22,968 to 37,203 by 1980. At the time, they had no idea Monroe would instead see its population peak, then endure a long stretch of resident attrition.

“If you don’t redefine to the changes occurring — now by the decade — you are going to get left behind,” said Monroe Mayor Robert Clark.

Necessary adaptation

Greg Martin, 67, specializes in feet.

He followed in the footsteps of his great-great-grandfather, George, and George’s four sons when he took the reins of Martin’s Shoe House, established 1846, in downtown Monroe.

When Mr. Martin began working at the shoe retailer, business was growing so big in 1969 that he bought a neighboring store to expand. Stools were always occupied, so he set up a waiting area. But not even a decade into running the enlarged store, business began slowing down.

During Monroe’s industrial golden age, Mr. Martin would stock thousands of steel-toe work boots. But then factories were culled one by one.

With manufacturing it was a slow but relentless decline over decades.

It was in the ’80s, when consumers flocked to new malls, that downtown retailers were hit hard and fast. Shoe sales plummeted across the board. Mr. Martin never laid anybody off, but he stopped replacing employees when they left.

“Everything kind of evaporated,” he said, leaning forward on a low shoe-fitting stool, elbows glued to his knees. “All at the same time — in only a period of ten years.”

And so, as he did with the factory closures, Mr. Martin adapted. Carving a niche among malls, he began carrying only higher-end shoes. When online retail soared, he capitalized on what his biggest competition, Amazon, couldn’t sell — a foot-measuring service.

Similarly Mayor Clark sees adaptation as key to his community’s viability in the 21st century.

But distilling his vision, he sees Monroe’s future as a physical peeling back of Monroe’s historic layers to get to its truth.

That’s where diversification of the economy comes in. Rather than large paper mills and steel casting, the city is focusing on many things at once: its commercial parks, lingering manufacturing, an industrial port, and at its center, its historic downtown.