Hold your breath and count to ten

Now that nearly a week has elapsed since the devastating announcement of Procter&Gamble’s looming closure, it’s time to look at this economic disaster from a broader perspective.

Yes, this closure is the worst possible news to the roughly 600 people who work there, full-time or otherwise. And it’s more than worrisome for the many others whose businesses depend, in some way, on servicing the large California Avenue plant.

But moving beyond the shock and gloom is the only way to proceed, eventually, to a solution that will give these people new opportunities.

An appropriate vantage-point might be Mayor David Henderson’s framing of the matter on the day the bad news hit: “This is big but it’s not the end of our world,” said the mayor.

He made that comment when I asked him the admittedly overblown question of whether the loss of Brockville’s biggest plant was an economic “existential threat.”

I asked that because, when such news hits, that is inevitably how it feels.

It’s not a good thing,” said the mayor, “but the sky is not falling.”

Indeed, I remember my first skyfall.

I was still in my first year at the Rip and Tear in 1997 when a provincial commission announced that the Brockville Psychiatric Hospital would close in two years.

It seemed at the time like a blow from which this community would never recover, although an editor at the time told his inexperienced cub: “We don’t know how this is going to play out.”

As we now know, the situation did in fact “play out” in a way that still leaves us with a mental health facility on those old BPH grounds – albeit a smaller one than we once had – not to mention a secure forensic treatment unit.

The next skyfall happened in January 1998, when Black and Decker's Brockville plant, which at its height employed 1,100 people, shut down, with 500 losing their jobs.

Yet another skyfall happened in October of 2002, when the city lost 1,000 jobs, including the closure of Sanmina-SCI, formerly Brock Telecom.

And of course there was the February 20, 1996 announcement that Phillips Cables was closing. That one left us with Northern Cables, another example of good news following, albeit on a smaller scale, on the heels of bad.

Each plant closure is terrible in its own way, and yet each also comes with the same universal truth: Corporations are moved to act by their own internal logic, a combination of objectives, pressures and priorities that can be inscrutable from the outside, and on which local officials working for the good of the community have no influence.

These things happen out of our control and as a result leave us feeling helpless.

But the reality is there are things to be done.

Brockville is a city that grew and thrived with tremendous entrepreneurial spirit,” Brockville and District Chamber of Commerce president Pat Markovich told me last week, citing such homegrown success stories as Canarm, Hansler Smith and, yes, Northern Cables.

Add to local entrepreneurs outside investment, which still exists. Our most recent example of a plant closure with a multi-year horizon, Abbott Labs, is now giving us Canadian Milk Manufacturing.

These solutions are always, as in the latter case, smaller than the original. Indeed, this has become such an entrenched reality of the North American economy that the idea of Brockville getting a Toyota plant is a recurring joke around the city council table.

Which is why city hall and the newly-emerging St. Lawrence Corridor Economic Development Commission must work to replace one large employer with multiple smaller ones.

It’s not an easy task; it’s also one that requires a fundamental rethink of this city’s economic identity, one that will be accelerated by P&G’s closure deadline. 

But it’s also not an existential threat, nor is it skyfall.