News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

March 8, 2008

MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute, Midwestern towns ‘caught in the middle’ of a changing, global economic puzzle

TERRE HAUTE — Toothpaste enlightened me.

On my first experience in a foreign country, my wife and I found ourselves in a convenience store in Cancun, Mexico. There were a few legitimate cultural differences — a dog-sized condor hitting the windshield of our VW Beetle taxi, two entertainment-starved and possibly intoxicated locals thinking I looked like Chuck Norris, and neither of us being able to speak Spanish. But we’d forgotten to pack toothpaste, and while wandering the picturesque white beaches, we found this tiny store.

We walked in and asked the guy behind the cash register for some toothpaste. Fittingly, he spoke no English. So we employed the international symbol for dental care by gritting our teeth and pretending to brush.

“Ah, Col-ga-tay,” he said.

Puzzled, I stared at him. Then my more perceptive better half responded, “Yes, Colgate.”

You say, “Col-ga-tay,” I say, “Colgate.” Either way, toothpaste is toothpaste. The writing on the tube may be different, but the stuff still brushed the same and everybody in the civilized world needs it.

In many ways, Terre Haute and the Midwest face similar economic realities in the 21st century.

Within the past year, two of Terre Haute’s longest employers shut down production here while also investing heavily into similar operations in foreign countries. Pfizer eliminated its inhaled insulin product Exubera at its local plant, cutting 660 jobs by this spring. Then last month, Pfizer announced it would create a new inhaled products technology center at its facility in Amboise, France, which opened in 1970. Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical maker, had considered Terre Haute, where its plant opened shortly after World War II. “But in the end we determined that the center fit best with the Amboise operation,” said spokesman Rick Chambers.

Also last year, International Paper closed its Terre Haute mill in October, ending 156 local jobs and a 90-year history here. A month earlier, International Paper, the world’s largest paper and packaging company, announced it would invest $650 million in a joint production venture with Russian company Ilim. That capital infusion would go into four Ilim mills in Asia. The move, according to a MarketWatch report, would allow International Paper to expand into Asia, where paper sales are expected to exceed the flat North American market by 2015.

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