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Patt Jackson: The axe man cometh ... but this time it's personal

You can't turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about another business cutting back or shutting its doors. It's become a national epidemic, and certainly Duluth is not immune. Places like SMDC, Minnesota Power, Questex, Qwest...

You can't turn on the television or open a newspaper without hearing about another business cutting back or shutting its doors. It's become a national epidemic, and certainly Duluth is not immune. Places like SMDC, Minnesota Power, Questex, Qwest and large and small shops of all kinds have taken their hits. So you go about your daily business, if you have any left, and you move on to other matters in life. You don't pay too much attention until it affects your business or your company, and suddenly it's big news, worthy of note.

And so it happened with my long-time employer, Advanstar Communications Inc., late in March.

Summoned to a mandatory meeting, we sat in stunned silence hearing the bad news: Major cutbacks. New directions. Tough economy. New management. Outsourcing. (That dreaded word!) We absorbed the words but not the shock. That came later.

Advanstar's a funny name and a lot of people had never heard of us, or else they saw our buildings but didn't know what we were about.

Advanstar has a long and rich history in Duluth, beginning in 1939. We've gone through a lot of new owners and name changes, from Davidson to Ojibwe Press to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ) to Edgell Communications and finally to Advanstar.

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We've been in and out of debt (mostly in, it would appear) and we've published more than 100 trade publications, business journals and directories; operated more than 80 trade shows and professional conferences; and, most importantly, kept nearly 250 persons gainfully employed in Duluth alone. Good benefits, good salaries, great folks to work with and many years of memories, mostly good and a few bad.

Our major competitors included some of the greats, like McGraw-Hill, Primedia Inc. and Penton Media. We'd undergone layoffs and recoveries and bumps and restarts but always managed to stay afloat in the worst of times. In uncertain economic times, as they're called, we were sometimes nervous but always hopeful of our futures. We dodged a lot of bullets. Until now, of course.

I'm not savvy enough to understand the national economy. I know it's bad, but I don't know why -- and probably never will.

I know that some companies save millions by sending jobs to foreign shores, but I don't know why it seems like a good idea to put millions out of work in this country because you can get it done cheaper in other places, and I certainly don't understand how much is "enough" when it comes to making a profit. I don't blame any one person for the decisions that were made at our company, but, like so many others, I'm wondering why this happened. Aren't current reports stating that the economy is picking up? So why us? Why now?

Here's what I do know for sure. By the end of November, nearly 100 Advanstar employees will be out of work. Many of them are close friends, and at this writing most do not know how they will find secure jobs in a town that is already staggering under the weight of unemployment. Departments are breaking up. Friendships are tested. People talk of digging up roots and moving their hopes (and skills and talents) to larger cities. Home and car purchases are put on hold, belts are tightened, budgets are scrutinized, nights are sleepless and fear becomes a family member.

For the city of Duluth, it represents tremendous loss: loss of revenue in homes and taxes that folks can no longer afford, loss of income for local merchants whose offerings are no longer affordable, loss of friendships and families as people move away, loss of community -- loss, loss, loss. What good does this change do for our community? None that I can see.

If there is a solution other than new businesses moving into the area or current employers suddenly able to expand their employee counts, I do not know what it is. How many more jobs will be lost? How many more companies will have to close their doors? How long before things begin to turn around and Duluth once again becomes that prosperous, thriving jewel in the crown of Lake Superior? Does anyone have a clue?

When unemployment hits, it hits hard. We are learning this at Advanstar, just as others in Duluth have learned. Times are tough.

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I've revised the old line: Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for Advanstar. And it tolls for thee.

Writer Patt Jackson lives (and works) in Duluth, the city she loves. Contact her c/o the Budgeteer at budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com .

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