City's Manufacturing Sector Not Too Grim

America’s manufacturing sector is shrinking fast, as car companies and building materials suppliers lay people off. WNYC’s Ilya Marritz caught up recently with some Brooklyn industrial business owners, and found their outlook is not quite so bleak.

REPORTER: So, here’s a room full of welders and woodworkers. They do business in the same town as Goldman Sachs and Citibank, but their business is about as far from derivatives trading as you can get.

How are they handling the economic shockwaves emanating from Wall Street?

FISHER: Out of curiosity…Who here feels positive economy in 2009 and 2010? Are you feeling positive about the economy?

REPORTER: That’s Greg Fisher, a financial advisor, and the first panelist at a conference for Brooklyn manufacturers, called “Finding the Silver Lining.”

FISHER: Raise your hand if you feel positive about the economy.

REPORTER: At first, there’s nothing.

Then, a few shy hands go up.

FISHER: So, looks like about six or seven percent of you, maybe.

REPORTER: Well, Greg Fisher has news for this room of skeptics: rents are falling, interest rates are falling, companies looking for skilled workers can find them. His silver lining?

FISHER: The reward for taking risk today seems to be a lot more significant than the reward for taking risk at the peak of the economic cycle.

REPORTER: That’s not all. Another panelist, procurement expert Carolyn Githinji, tells the room an enormous bag of money is coming their way, if they’ll only open their eyes and reach for it. Its name: federal stimulus package.

GITHINJI: Where are you guys in all of this? How many of you guys want to get this money?

REPORTER: Mike DiMarino wants a piece of the stimulus.

He’s upgrading his 56 year old tool & die shop in Red Hook and applying to be certified as a vendor to the federal government.

DIMARINO: You want to get dressed for the party before it begins. And it will begin again.

REPORTER: DiMarino could use some new customers: he was hit hard by the strike at Boeing last year, and he predicts his business this month will be down by 25 percent. Still…

DIMARINO: I haven’t laid anybody off since 1983 and I don’t intend on doing that.

If Mike DiMarino shows determination, Perry North is an unabashed optimist.

NORTH: I just moved to New York to bring my product to market.

REPORTER: what’s your product?

NORTH: It’s an erogonomic computer workstation. It’s a chair. And the whole chair is the computer.

REPORTER: The ErgoMotions workstation looks like a dentist’s chair, with two flatscreen monitors attached. Not something you’d want in your home. That’s fine; North is pitching it to the government as a tool for air traffic controllers.

And he’ll manufacture it, he says, right here in New York City.

NORTH: Actually I’m gonna capitalize on the fact that prices are dropping, real estate’s gonna become a little more affordable, not that it’s affordable in New York anyways, I’m gonna look for deals to be cut, and I’m gonna use it to my advantage.

REPORTER: The hundred or so business owners here are just a slice of New York’s industrial pie. Maybe the most striking thing about the gathering isn’t what any one of them says. It’s the fact that a dozen or so bankers are working the room.

Robert Jee is with Flushing Savings Bank. He says his bank got a cash infusion from the government, and they are lending it out in New York City.

JEE: Bigger lenders have peeled away from even good credit risks. So we’re looking at a lot of wholesalers, distributor operations, but a lot of it in startup bsuinesses also, that’s still the name of the game.

Not long ago, prospecting in a place like this might not have seemed so promising. New York lost 100,000 industrial jobs over the past decade, while Wall Street boomed. But now, says Leah Archibald of the East Williamsburg Valley Industrial Development Corporation, the city is left with a bunch of hardy survivors you can bet on.

ARCHIBALD: If you’re making cut-rate bed sheets you’re already in the sunbelt, or China or Indonesia or wherever. The businesses that are here, the manufacturers that are left, have some competitive advantage, and it’s not based on price.

REPORTER: In other words: the pita bread baker and the iron railing maker may be a good hedge against the mounting job losses on Wall Street.

For WNYC, I’m Ilya Marritz.