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In Land of Kisses, a Slap in the Face

Sale of town roils a real main street

August 30, 2002 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Governors from Maryland to Washington have called for doing almost precisely what Milton Hershey achieved in the Pennsylvania chocolate town that bears his name. People there live in cozy neighborhoods that mix homes, stores, and jobs within easy walking distance.

More than 50 years after his death, it's still hard to tell whether Milton Hershey built a town to support his chocolate factory, or a chocolate factory to support his town. Now, as the Hershey Foods Corporation is offered for sale to the highest bidder, it's more than the townspeople who are upset. All across the nation, people are wondering what will happen to a classic American town that serves not just as a tourist attraction, but a model of civic engagement.

Unlike Disney World's Main Street, Hershey is an authentic place. One of America’s great utopians, Milton Hershey dreamed of creating a community with "no poverty, no nuisances, no evil." He laid out the town’s landscaped streets, created a small shopping district, built a trolley line, and fashioned distinctive housing for everyone from workers to corporate executives. To keep his employees busy during the Depression, he built a community center, a sports arena, a hotel, and public schools.

Today those values are drawing new attention in a national Smart Growth movement to redesign American patterns of development. Governors from Maryland to Washington have called for doing almost precisely what Hershey achieved: encouraging people to live in cozy neighborhoods that mix homes, stores, and jobs within easy walking distance.

The question throughout much of Pennsylvania is whether the quality of life fostered by good jobs and a truly great place can survive a sale to a conglomerate like Nestle or Kraft Foods. Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher doesn't think so, and is appearing in a state court on September 3 seeking a restraining order to prevent the sale. The legislature is considering a bill to do the same thing. This struggle to protect one of America's most historic businesses has become the century's first prominent contest between the ideal of "real community" and the relentless bottom line.

There's nothing new about outsiders taking over a homegrown industry. But Hershey Foods, a Fortune 500 company with more than $4 billion in annual sales, is unique.

In 1909, as he was building his central Pennsylvania town and cornering the national chocolate market, Milton Hershey founded a school for orphaned boys on farmland adjacent to the town. A few years later, Hershey turned over his entire estate to the Hershey Trust, with himself as chairman, for the benefit of the Milton Hershey School. Today, the Hershey Trust has assets of
$5.4 billion, greater than all but a few universities. It uses that endowment to fund a free K-12 education -- including room, board, clothing, and medical care -- for 1,200 underprivileged boys and girls from Harlem to Los Angeles.

To safeguard its fabulous wealth through diversification, the Trust has not only been selling off its stake in Hershey Foods, but shedding board members with close ties to the Hershey community. Today, only seven of its 17 directors live in Pennsylvania.

Hershey Foods has offered to buy back its stock in a plan that would still leave the Trust in control with as little as 15 percent. But Trust officers believe they can make more money by an outright sale of the company, which is currently delivering record profits.

The Hershey saga reflects a sea change in American values during the last 50 years. We are far wealthier than we were when Milton Hershey died in 1945, but at a price of abandoning the close-knit communities that used to constitute America.

In Hershey's day, the vast majority of Americans lived in walkable cities and towns that housed people of all ages and incomes. They shopped in the same stores, paid taxes to the same municipality, and sent their kids to the same schools. They shared a common responsibility for their town because everyone had a personal stake in its welfare.

As Americans prospered in the post-war era, the middle class and affluent abandoned their towns for roomier living in suburbia, leaving the poor and minorities behind. Shopping malls decimated the small stores on Main Street, and the focus on mergers and profits left many towns without the corporate support and leadership they once enjoyed.

These changes helped redefine the good life as one of splendid isolation, where home ends with the front lawn, and community is a set of common interests rather than a physical place.

Like many Americans, the directors of the Hershey Trust have lost their sense of geographic community. Their obsession with money has obscured their obligation to Milton Hershey's ideal - to make and preserve a special place where people feel part of something larger than themselves.

Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from Pennsylvania, is author of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns and host of a public television documentary based on the book.

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