After companies leave, small towns down but not out
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Caterpillar Inc.'s Visitors Center and Museum resides on Washington Street in downtown Peoria, Illinois. The 50,000-square-foot facility opened in 2012 to celebrate the grand manufacturing company's history and, more importantly, lay out a vision for its future.

A future that, up until recently, was far more certain in the eyes of the surrounding community.

Caterpillar has always been regarded as more than a company in Illinois. This sturdy manufacturer of tractors personified the embodiment of the American Dream for generations of Peorians. It was the industrious Midwest work ethic and the grit derived from Peoria that turned Caterpillar into the world's leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment.

But while the company is stronger than ever, the fact that Caterpillar recently announced the move of its corporate headquarters to Chicago is set to deal a major blow to the community it has called home for more than a century.

For me, Peoria will always be home. My great-grandfather immigrated to Illinois from Berlin in the 19th century. My grandmother founded the local chapter of the Red Cross. My parents worked hard to help build affordable post-war apartment housing and shopping centers that catered to new business development.

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In 1982, after making a deathbed promise to my sister Susan to cure breast cancer, I founded the Susan G. Komen Foundation to eradicate breast cancer. Along with legions of volunteers spanning over 100 cities and 30 other countries, we created and sustained a foundation that has transformed the way in which the world treats and talks about breast cancer. That experience led me to career in public service to our nation and the honor of receiving an Order of Lincoln award in Peoria last year.

 

Our family’s story wasn't unique, however; just quintessentially American, like so many others.

The spirit of these endeavors was fueled by the strong sense of civic engagement found within our city. My father was fond of referring to Peoria as "paradise" because he understood that the riches we lacked in income were more than made up for in the town's sense of community.

A community held together by Caterpillar.

Caterpillar itself is perhaps best known for building the infrastructure and energy components that power America. Few also recall the role the company played in moving artillery across Europe during World War I, constructing projects such as the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge, and expanding the Panama Canal. The larger-than-life role Caterpillar played on the American landscape was second only in size to the space it occupied in the hearts of the people of Peoria.

Today, the world is changing. Our country faces stiff competition for business from overseas. The core of what made America a nation of builders after World War II is under assault. Trade deals are necessary, but too often treat working-class citizens as numbers on a spreadsheet. Bustling 20th-century cities such as Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Toledo and Youngstown, Ohio have borne the brunt of international competition and markets slanted against a hostile regulatory environment.

The pride and struggles endured by millions of Americans who reside in these seemingly forgotten towns paved President Trump's path to the White House.

Caterpillar's Visitors Center and Museum on Washington Street stands blocks from where I used to sell Girl Scout cookies door-to-door. The center contends that the company's strength lays in its future, as opposed to its past. As a native Peorian, I can attest to the fact that the same can be said of the city where Caterpillar's corporate headquarters has resided since 1910.

The forthcoming departure of Caterpillar jobs, while sad, will not undermine our past, and it won't kill our spirit or work ethic. Peorians have entirely too much pride for that.

It will, however, knock us down. How long it will take until we get up is anyone's guess.

Nancy Brinker grew up in Peoria, Ill., and was the founder of Susan G. Komen Foundation, a nonprofit organization working to end breast cancer. She served as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 2001 to 2003, was White House chief of protocol from 2007 to 2009 under President George W. Bush, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.