If you squint, you might think you're somewhere in Silicon Valley.
Partially assembled computers are scattered around the room. Workers put together circuit boards and wire panels in small workshops. The talk is of bytes and systems and the other language of data processing. Even the company's name--Anatec--reeks of high technology.
Anatec, a division of Atlantic Richfield Co.'s Anaconda Copper subsidiary, assembles and programs computers used to control manufacturing processes.
But this is not the high-technology center of California. This is the flat, industrial heartland of the North Central states. Anatec's nondescript, blocky building sits amid a smattering of similar structures in an area with an optimistic name, Dublin Research Park.
There are those who believe that companies such as Anatec represent the future of the economy of the North Central states--a future in which the region's economic base evolves from heavy industry to a much greater reliance on technology--Smokestack America transformed into Hi-Tech America.
A few miles away from Dublin, in Columbus, state officials map plans to lure high-technology companies to Ohio from California and Texas and the Route 128 area around Boston where the technology companies have sprung up in the past decade.
By most reckonings, what had been a serious recession in this region deepened into depression in 1982. Businesses failed in record numbers, unemployment rates spiraled through the double-digit level early in the year, and automakers and steel giants continued to suffer. International Harvester Co. teetered on the edge of bankruptcy with fiscal 1982 losses of $1.6 billion.
Ship traffic through the St. Lawrence Seaway to and from the Great Lakes dropped an alarming 16 percent, and iron ore shipments plunged 40 percent--testimony not only to the steel industry's distress, but by extension, the problems of all heavy manufacturers that use steel.
The figures are a measure, as well, of the dire problems being faced by the mining towns of Minnesota that supply iron ore to steel plants worldwide. Miners on the other side of the region are also feeling the pinch--28.3 percent of the United Mine Workers' membership in the coal-mining regions of West Virginia is out of work; in Pennsylvania, the figure is 31.7 percent.
Even as the states are competing to lure high-technology companies, they are sometimes forced to fight among themselves to keep the heavy industry they have left. International Harvester pitted officials of Ohio and Indiana against each other last year in a battle over which of its two domestic truck plants the company would keep open. Ohio came up with the bigger package of economic concessions and kept its plant; Indiana lost 3,500 jobs in the Ft. Wayne area.
In all, Harvester earmarked about a dozen facilities to be closed or sold. Late in the year, the company granted a reprieve to a 230-worker foundry in Waukesha, Wis., after winning local concessions, even as a locally financed loan package was falling through in Rock Island, Ill., endangering the survival of some Harvester faciltities there.
Officials of the North Central states point to New England, where a plethora of high-technology companies have sprung from the ashes of the textile business and other nondurable goods industries that all but collapsed a quarter-century ago, and wonder why they cannot lure biotechnology and robotics companies.
They cite their states' good educational systems, low energy costs, lower costs-of-living than California, abundant water supplies, excellent transportation networks, locations at the center of the nation's industrial base and, most of all, their willing and often desperate work forces.
But there are those in this area not so hard pressed to see the bright side, not so inclined toward boosterism, who say high-technology companies, at best, will be a small part of the region's badly needed recovery and will provide far fewer jobs than needed. They say high technology is a buzzword whose ramifications are often not well understood.
The skeptics also say officials of the region should forego raiding parties to Silicon Valley and Route 128 and instead consider how to apply the new technologies to the North Central states' existing businesses to improve productivity, perhaps reversing some of the unemployment that has accompanied the decimation of the automobile and steel industries.
"I think high-tech is sort of a craze right now, and too many people are looking at it as a panacea," cautions David Merkowitz, spokesman for the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition. "You can't bring in a computer manufacturer to replace an auto plant."
"I don't think we'll ever see some massive salvation program that will someday plop into place and wipe all of this out," says Sam Mitchell, president of the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry.
With unemployment running at 12.7 percent in Illinois, economic conditions in the Chicago area are so poor that Mitchell's organization was forced to cancel its annual economic forecast luncheon in December because it had been able to sell only a handful of tickets to the event to business sponsors.
"It certainly is presumptuous to think that the technological products are the be-all and end-all, but I think they offer a rather substantial solution to a large part of the problem," says George W. Baughman, director of the office of special projects at Ohio State University.
Baughman is a member of a task force appointed in 1981 by Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes to determine what the state should do to use high technology to create jobs in the state, where unemployment stood at 14 percent in November.
The task force produced something called TAPCOHIO, for Technology and Productivity Center of Ohio, one of the more sophisticated state efforts to exploit technology.
TAPCOHIO is designed as an independent, non-profit organization to pull together the state's varied resources in the high-technology field, to coordinate business, government, academic and the financial communities to provide data and assistance for both high-technology companies that may be considering a move into the state and, more important, to help existing Ohio corporations use high technology to improve their lot. (Pennsylvania plans a similar effort, dubbed the Ben Franklin Partnership.)
"I think what we're seeing here with high technology is a revolutionary procedure speeding up an evolutionary one," says Edmund G. James Jr., deputy director of the economic development division of the Ohio department of economic and community development. "That may be the best use of high technology, if it accomplishes that."
In Detroit, unemployment of 18.7 percent--16.4 percent statewide in Michigan--attests to the auto industry's share of the North Central states' nightmare. Officials there, too, are talking not of attracting new high-technology companies but of using high technology to revitalize what is already in place.
"What we're trying to do is build on the strengths we already have here," says Corinne Gilb, Detroit's planning director.
Gilb ticks off the myriad high-technology efforts underway inside the auto industry and in other companies in the Detroit area, and she says that if the city is not the leader in the manufacture of high-tech equipment, it will at least be a factor in two other parts of the equation: "We're the center of the market for robotics and for advanced research on robotics."
But Gilb and others recognize an unfortunate paradox in such efforts: High technology industries are much less labor intensive than the manufacturing base they are supposed to be replacing. And the installation of robotics and other factory modernization efforts often decrease the number of jobs at a plant.
"High technology is certainly a growing area," Merkowitz says, "but it's never going to provide the kind of employment base for the Midwest and elsewhere that the auto industry and the steel industry provided."
State and local officials throughout the North Central states also are beefing up training programs to meet the coming need--and are wondering at the same time whether the stereotypical middle-aged autoworker will be willing to learn new skills to go back to work.
"There are people who say that he can't, but I think he can be retrained," says Gilb.