In Hershey, PA, a Worrisome Plant Closing

Hershey Co.'s flagship plant is slated to be shuttered, with 500 jobs disappearing.

Can the Hershey company really close its flagship plant? The many-acre facility right on Hershey, Pa.’s main drag, a.k.a. Chocolate Avenue, has signaled to thousands of visitors that they are in Chocolate Town, U.S.A.–not least because the aroma of chocolate fills the very air.

But the factory is set to close, as the company announced this summer. Five hundred jobs will go, and six hundred other jobs will be transferred to a more modern $300 million facility on the edge of town.

“Lots of those workers were ready to retire anyway,” one local citizen told me during a recent visit. “Hershey will take care of them–it always has.”

Maybe. But more and more of the company’s production is going abroad, to Mexico and Asia.

The town of Hershey seems as prosperous and welcoming as ever, even with the vast Hershey Park amusement area largely closed for the season–its roller-coaster-like rides momentarily stilled.

A large patch of green near the plant’s gate is emblazoned with “Hershey’s Cocoa” spelled out in flowers. Up on a hill overlooking the village is the opulent, rambling Hotel Hershey, situated near Hershey Gardens and the imposing middle-school branch of the Milton Hershey School, endowed in 1915 with all of the founder’s company stock.

The endowment is managed from an imposing building tagged The Hershey Trust, also right on Chocolate Avenue. Milton Hershey’s old mansion provides further quarters for the wealthy school.

On a beautiful autumn day, the town hardly seems representative of a blighted, deindustrialized land. But that spectre haunts America in 2010, as I’ve learned during several recent radio-show appearances. Americans are worried that the recession hardly seems over–and as corporations continue to shift jobs abroad, the citizenry frets that no new economic development is on the horizon. One caller, a truck driver, told me that he used to pick up and deliver lots of steel produced in Gary, Indiana and elsewhere. Nowadays, much of his freight consists of used equipment being shipped abroad. Where will replacement jobs come from? No one in Washington or anywhere else seems to have an answer.

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