Decline, but Hope of Revival, as a Company Fades out of a Town It Defined

By Applebome, Peter | International Herald Tribune, January 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

Decline, but Hope of Revival, as a Company Fades out of a Town It Defined


Applebome, Peter, International Herald Tribune


As Kodak faces talk of bankruptcy, Rochester, New York, finds strength in the company's legacy of spin-offs and institutions.

In what was once the ultimate company town, virtually everyone has a trove of bright Kodak moments.

They were plucked from the personal memories immortalized on the camera film that was made here, the bountiful jobs that let children follow their parents into Kodak's secure embrace, the seemingly endless largess that once allowed the company's founder, George Eastman, to provide dental care at little or no cost to every child in town.

Now, with Eastman Kodak's stock price below $1 and talk of bankruptcy inescapable, people here are pondering a thought as unimaginable as New Orleans without the French Quarter or New York without the Yankees -- Rochester after the calamitous fall of the company that Eastman founded in 1880.

It feels like the wrenching culmination of a slide over decades, during which Kodak's employment in Rochester plummeted from 62,000 in the 1980s to less than 7,000 now. Still, for this city in western New York, the picture that emerges, like a photograph coming to life in a darkroom, is not a simple tale of Rust Belt decay.

Rochester has helped lead job creation in the state in recent years. In 1980, total employment in the Rochester metropolitan area was 414,400. In 2010, it was 503,200. New businesses have been seeded by Kodak's skilled work force, a reminder that a company's fall can leave behind not just scars but also things to build upon.

"The decline of Kodak is extremely painful," said Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester, which, with its two hospitals, is the city's largest employer, with 20,000 jobs. "But if you step back and look at the last two or three decades, you see the emergence of a much more diversified, much more knowledge-based economy."

Kodak announced last week its most recent reorganization, an effort to cut costs and enhance digital operations, which now account for 80 percent of revenue. But after the company said in November that it could run out of cash in a year if it could not sell more than 1,000 digital-imaging patents, fears of bankruptcy have emerged among investors, retirees and employees.

A Kodak spokesman, Christopher Veronda, said the company did not comment on market rumors. In an e-mail, he added, "Rochester has been our home for more than 130 years, and it remains our home."

Still, nowhere have Kodak's troubles resonated more than in Rochester, where Mr. Eastman's philanthropy and legacy live on in myriad institutions, including the University of Rochester and its Eastman School of Music.

The George Eastman House, a museum of photography and motion pictures, still has the oak box Mr. Eastman used to keep up with his donations, whether it was the $625,000 he gave in 1901 to the Mechanics Institute, now the Rochester Institute of Technology, or his smaller gifts to groups like the Vacant Lot Gardening Association or the Rochester Association of Workers for the Blind. …

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