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IBM Facility Offers Blueprint For Urban Areas


WALK along the crowded streets here in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn - a community marked by small shops and rows of brownstone houses - and the imposing modernistic glass and brick IBM plant on DeKalb Avenue catches an outside observer by surprise.

The Brooklyn IBM plant is a case study of how a US corporation can enter an impoverished inner-city community, establish a manufacturing facility, and not only earn a profit, but help to improve the local community.

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"The IBM plant is a benchmark; it's [an industry] success story that could be duplicated in other inner cities or anywhere else in the United States," says Bryant Mason, a senior fellow at the Phelps-Stokes Fund, a nonprofit education reform foundation in Manhattan.

Mr. Mason, who worked for the Brooklyn IBM facility from 1985 to 1989, says that other corporations should follow IBM's example and establish manufacturing facilities in inner-city neighborhoods. Not to do so, he argues, is to continue to subject urban America to the hopelessness, poverty, and instability that helped fuel the recent riots in Los Angeles.

Bedford-Stuyvesant is a sprawling 650-block inner-city community of more than 400,000 people living in walkups, apartment houses, and brownstones; but one also finds vacant lots and abandoned buildings.

Once home to European immigrants, the community is now predominately African-American, with some Hispanics and Asian-Americans. There are also hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, many from the Caribbean.

Back in 1967, following the urban riots of the mid-1960s, New York Senators Robert Kennedy and Jacob Javits helped set up the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a grass-roots agency designed to revitalize the neighborhood.

With the backing of the two senators, and the Restoration Corporation, IBM head Thomas Watson Jr. agreed to open a manufacturing site in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The original facility - which was a leased warehouse - opened in October, 1968. Within three years, the plant was profitable.

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By the early 1970s, the facility was producing computer printers and information display units; but by the mid-'70s, IBM had outgrown the site. Thus, in 1978 IBM opened the present wholly-owned 174,000-square-foot plant.

Today, the plant employs 300 people, down from a high of 400 several years ago and is now largely a repair facility for IBM.

Wes Ratcliff, the plant manager, estimates that the facility contributes over $75 million annually to the Brooklyn and New York City communities through its payroll, taxes, utilities, and other financial outlays.

Mr. Ratcliff, a tall, affable man with a hearty laugh, rose through IBM's ranks after a stint as a college professor in Texas. He took over the Brooklyn facility in 1990.

Ratcliff says that US corporations are "missing a golden opportunity by not locating manufacturing sites in urban communities."

The workers, he says, "are highly trainable and well motivated." At the Brooklyn facility, 90 percent of them are from the local community.

Herlean Massaro, who lives in East Flatbush, roughly a half-hour commute from the plant, repairs computer monitors; she has worked with IBM for 20 years. She says she could not imagine Brooklyn without the IBM plant.

Nor is there any apparent threat to the facility, despite ongoing efforts by IBM to reorganize the company for greater profitability.

About 20,000 workers will be trimmed from IBM's worldwide payroll this year, largely through attrition or voluntary retirement.

"But the Brooklyn IBM facility is probably about where it will be for the foreseeable future, in terms of staffing and mission," says IBM corporate spokesman Paul Neuman.

Ratcliff notes that IBM sees its commitment to the community as "regular" - not just part of some good works project - and pays all required taxes on the plant, rather than taking special tax breaks. "As long as there is a business reason for being in Brooklyn, we'll stay here," Ratcliff says.

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