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Obama showcases his own failure

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.


This city has been combating hard economic times for a very long time.

Coal, steel and railroads, which made Scranton an industrial powerhouse early in the last century, faded long before the start of World War II. Folks began exiting the mine-ravaged city in the early 1940s when industrial jobs and businesses began drying up.

Scranton fell into decline earlier than other Rust Belt cities because its rich supply of anthracite coal fell out of favor — first to oil-burning systems, then to natural gas — as the energy supplier for most large public buildings and schools in the Northeast.

While other industrial cities across the country enjoyed the postwar industrial boom, Scranton's business leaders floated a bond (coining a tune, “Buy Scranton Bonds”) and literally took to the streets to sell them to citizens.

The result was a temporary reprieve: The city attracted 11 new downtown businesses.

By the 1960s, then-Gov. William Scranton, in the middle of his term as the state's chief executive and a descendant of the city's founders, was doing his part to try to revitalize it by attempting to lure a Chrysler plant and several other businesses to town.

Twenty years later, a Scranton civic commission released a report that found the city was paying untenable costs for its employees at the expense of providing much-needed public services.

Twenty years after that, in 2012, Mayor Chris Doherty said he couldn't pay the more than 400 city employees (including himself) more than the $7.25-per-hour minimum wage after a political impasse arose over how to deal with a substantial shortfall in the city's operating budget.

“I just don't have the money for the paychecks to give employees,” Doherty told the Trib at the time.

Ten years ago, Scranton did find a way to pursue a bit of a financial shot in the arm with the construction of downtown apartments and storefronts. Unfortunately, no one planned ways to fill those buildings. Part of the problem with doing so was the city's tax base: The four main local employers are universities, hospitals, social services and banks, and the first three don't pay taxes. No tax base means no money in the city budget, so living or conducting business in the city tends to be expensive and difficult.

Nothing zeroes in on the city's mismanagement combined with good intentions more than Steamtown. The somewhat fabulous, somewhat disappointing railroad museum and national historic site has been plagued with financial problems since its inception, including the cloak-and-dagger congressional deal in the dead of night that secured hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and even city funding — but which has never met the park's financial needs.

The park also has never met the expected visitor levels outlined in any of its planning.

When President Barack Obama stepped on the ground here Friday, into a village initially known as Slocum Hollow, he visited a city that has been managing decline for more than 70 years. None of his policies of the past four-plus years has done a thing to point Scranton back in the right direction.

Even the nearly $60 million in federal stimulus funds provided to the city by the Obama administration failed to create more than 34 jobs, as of 2012.

As history shows, Obama is not the first politician to try to fix Scranton. But, like any Democrat-machine-run city, Scranton did its part to provide a “hardscrabble” backdrop to make him look good for the TV cameras.

Comparisons to Detroit cause Scranton natives to cringe. Yet, not entirely unlike the Motor City, three generations of trying to hold this city together with Band-Aids, short-term fixes and pinning hopes for economic renewal on an industrial museum have not changed its fortunes.

Scranton is an emblem for our time, an era of economic calamity in America.

So perhaps it is fitting that the president perceived an opportunity in placing himself center stage here as he pivots — once again — for “the little guy,” praising himself as the savior of the middle class.

Who better to showcase the failure of our economic stability than the man who has been given ample time to revitalize it but has only mismanaged it?

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or

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