GARY BECKER, this city's mayor, remembers handing out fliers at local factory gates as a 10-year-old campaigner in Hubert H. Humphrey's ill-fated presidential bid in 1968. Mr. Becker, 48, is still a Democrat, but the factories and the traditional blue-collar jobs that filled the streets of his childhood are mostly gone, replaced by condominiums, restaurants and shops along Lake Michigan as well as an increasing number of service-sector jobs.
As Racine has changed, so have its politics. Once, a ritual antagonism for business was a sure vote-getter among Democrats. But Mr. Becker was elected three years ago with a pro-development message, pledging to trim jobs from the public payroll to free resources to attract new residents and businesses.
Racine's future, Mr. Becker believes, lies in forging stronger links with the regional economy and global markets. Reinvention can be unnerving, he acknowledges, but he says it is his hometown's best shot at prosperity and progress. "In the past, Racine was a self-contained economy," he said. "But that is not an option anymore."
No local economy truly mirrors the nation. But for Racine and its surrounding suburbs, the last few years have been marked by gradually rising prosperity, in step with the national trend. And the recent history of Racine, like that of the nation as a whole, is also the story of how a community comes to grips with the larger forces of globalization and technological change.
This continuing transformation helps explain why the people of Racine, like people everywhere, often appear apprehensive about the seismic changes that surround them. In a world where new technologies can quickly upend an industry and China and India loom large on the economic horizon, nobody knows exactly which businesses and skills will prove to be winners.
"If you're not somewhat anxious, you don't understand," Mr. Becker said. "And the businesses and people who are still here and doing well have sort of figured that out." For Mr. Becker, his neighbors and his constituents, figuring out the proper marriage of policymaking and personal choice to nurture a vibrant economy is a delicate task — an uncertain balancing act that will determine Racine's destiny.
IF there is such a thing as a median in a complex nation of vast distances and differences, the Racine metropolitan area is close. Home to a diverse population of 196,000, living in urban, suburban and some rural districts, it ranks near the middle of 379 metropolitan areas that Moody's Economy.com, a research group, tracks according to several statistical measures like income, job growth and increased housing values.
For better or worse, what is happening to the Racine area, and how the community is responding, offers a window to economic realities that resonate across the country. "The Racine economy is very similar to the broader nation," said Mark M. Zandi, chief economist of Economy.com.
Talk to people here about their personal finances and the usual subjects come up. Higher interest rates have cooled the local housing market, and higher gas prices mean fewer weekend fishing trips and second thoughts about owning a sport utility vehicle. Those same forces — more expensive products and more costly loans — have dampened consumer sentiment during the last year nationwide. The University of Michigan's index of consumer expectations slipped to 82.4 in June from 86.9 a year ago, but the current level is well above the mid-to-low 60's associated with an imminent downturn or recession.
So, for now, higher gas prices and interest rates seem to be only irritants for many people here. But they also represent worrying trends. "Sure, I'm feeling the impact," said Willie Poole, 50, a factory worker. "It costs me $75 to fill up the tank on my Chevy Tahoe now. But there's not much I can do about it."
Personal concerns like these, especially when they dovetail with a political campaign season, make it hard for politicians of all stripes to address voters' underlying fears about jobs, competitiveness and their place in the world. This may partially explain why the Bush administration and Republicans in general have not benefited more from a brisk economy that is adding jobs, while Democrats have been unable to build a message exploiting voter anxiety.
"The Democratic challenge is to tell a global economic story about the future that is credible and positive," said Robert B. Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, who was labor secretary in the Clinton administration. "We haven't really done that."
Perhaps the national parties can look to Racine, where politics cuts right down the middle. Mr. Becker, the mayor, is a Democrat. The Congressional representative for Wisconsin's First District, which includes Racine County, is a Republican, Paul Ryan. In the last two presidential elections, George W. Bush won Racine County by razor-thin margins. Politics here tend to be pragmatic and cooperative, without deep ideological rifts between the parties. Mr. Ryan praises Mr. Becker as a "business Democrat," while Mr. Becker says Mr. Ryan's track record and likeability all but ensure his re-election this fall.
Political and business leaders consistently advise that the best course in an uncertain economy is a pragmatic blend of self-reliance and community support. To succeed, they say, companies and individuals must keep climbing the economic ladder to upgrade products, services and skills. But they also emphasize the importance of public investment in redevelopment projects, government training and education programs, and government courtship of new businesses.
"We have to be honest with people, delivering a kind of cold wake-up call about the need for change in a fast-shifting economy," Mr. Ryan said. "But we also have to help produce a climate where people and companies can survive and thrive."
Across Racine, the appeal to self-reliance is heard, and seems to have sunk in. "One of the things we try to do is prepare people for this new world of work, where you have to keep reinventing yourself and it's all about lifelong learning and being able to adapt," said Alice Oliver, head of the Racine County Workforce Development Center.
The development center offers remedial math, science and English training for high school dropouts as well as job placement assistance in the region for unemployed professionals. Ms. Oliver says local employment has gained steam in the last few years, with hiring spread among jobs like cashiers, nurses' aides, human resources professionals and engineers. In the last year alone, businesses in the county added 1,500 jobs.
Ms. Oliver defines the development center's role as "delivering services to the business community," an attitude that reflects the increasingly close cooperation between government and business here. And Ms. Oliver, 48, is pursuing further education herself. Her Saturdays are spent at Marquette University in Milwaukee, where she is studying for a master's degree in public service leadership. "You've got to practice what you preach," she said.
Olatoye Baiyewu runs a program to train young, inner-city men as apprentices to electricians, plumbers, carpenters and cement masons. A Nigerian who came to the Midwest in the 1970's as an agricultural export broker, Mr. Baiyewu eventually shifted his career to training programs because, he said, "we need to do a better job of exposing young African-American men to the opportunities of America."
Besides offering basic education on the construction trades, his six-week program requires his trainees to get a library card and to read books like "Animal Farm" and "Silas Marner." Workplace etiquette and personal finance are part of the curriculum. His training program is run on a shoestring budget with support from the city and state governments and local foundations.
Darnell Mason is a recent graduate. A 28-year-old father of three, he was originally steered toward Mr. Baiyewu's program from the local child support office. Mr. Mason, a high school graduate and a Navy veteran, seemed particularly impressed by the reading requirement. "They were real books that spark your intellect and get you thinking," he said. "In everyday society, all kinds of things are going to be thrown at you, so you have to be flexible, think things through and adapt."
Mr. Mason is now applying for jobs as an apprentice cement mason. The pay would start at about $14 an hour, plus benefits, and over three or four years could rise to $35 an hour — a long way, Mr. Mason said, from his $7-an-hour warehouse jobs.
"I got into this because I want a career, not just another job," he said. "I'm 28 years old, I'm not getting any younger and I've got responsibilities."
With the region's construction businesses doing well, he has an excellent chance of being hired. Manufacturing jobs are a different story. Although manufacturing still accounts for more than 20 percent of the employment in the Racine metropolitan area, about twice the national figure of 11 percent, the number of local manufacturing jobs has been falling for years as companies failed or fled to lower-cost production sites in the South or overseas.
The Modine Manufacturing Company, for example, has its headquarters here, employs more than 700 people, pays $60 million in payroll taxes and buys $33 million in goods and services locally. Yet Modine, a big supplier of high-end radiators to companies like BMW and Caterpillar, and heat-transfer systems for computer data centers, does not manufacture in Racine anymore. Its facility here houses wind tunnels, workshops and clusters of white-coated scientists at computers doing thermal-imaging and climate simulations.
Stephen B. Memory, who holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, joined Modine as a researcher in 1997, having moved from Florida, where he was a professor at the University of Miami. His first visit to Racine was during a winter blizzard; his initial reaction, he recalled, was "what a bleak place." Still, he and his family stayed, he won a promotion, and Racine became more attractive. The downtown area sprang back to life and the local economy is now on the upswing. Signs of changing times, he says, are all the new ethnic restaurants in town. "It's a sure indicator of the shift from blue collar to white collar," he said.
STANDING as proof that innovative manufacturers can still flourish here is S. C. Johnson & Son, the maker of Windex, Pledge and other household products. The company, which is family-owned, has plants worldwide, but the largest, known as Waxdale, is about five miles west of downtown Racine. Waxdale covers an area the equivalent of 36 football fields and employs 1,200 people. Since the late 1990's, the plant's production has jumped more than 40 percent, but the size of its work force has remained the same.
"It's highly automated, highly competitive and works great for us," said H. Fisk Johnson, chief executive of S. C. Johnson.
Mr. Poole started working at Waxdale nearly three decades ago on the loading docks, and he marvels at how much things have changed. For one thing, machinery has supplanted much of the manual labor at the plant, as his own history shows. He has become proficient in a new, computerized warehouse management system, which he mastered after a six-month training course. To help maximize efficiency, he works closely with planners, production-line leaders and others to refine inventory and manufacturing flows, notifying his team with instructions he transmits wirelessly from his computer to forklifts on the factory floor. Skilled jobs like his pay well, typically $60,000 a year or more.
Technology has also changed the terms of trade for many small, local companies. Herbert Katt, 45, a building contractor, started his business in 1989 from his garage when his versions of information processing tools were a phone, a fax machine and a typewriter. Today, Mr. Katt uses software to continually update blueprints and plans, which he then shares with clients and architects via e-mail attachments. Digital photographs, also sent by e-mail, keep everyone up to date on how work is progressing. He uses project management software and e-mail to coordinate the work of subcontractors and shipments from suppliers.
Mr. Katt bids on projects like schools, warehouses and downtown renovations, and the competition is often complex and fast-paced. In their small office, he and a colleague work at computers juggling Excel spreadsheets, bid proposals, blueprints and Web searches, while negotiating over the phone. Each workstation has two flat-panel screens — a setup once used only by those at the leading edge of technology adoption, like computer scientists and Wall Street analysts. Technology has quickened the pace of his work and improved quality, Mr. Katt said; he catches mistakes before building begins, while other changes that once took days to work through with a client can be handled in hours. "It's a different world now, much faster," he noted.
Mr. Katt's business suffered as manufacturers closed or moved away. But things have picked up in the last two years, he says, helped by a lot of work renovating storefronts and public squares downtown. His business now employs 12 people, up from 8 in 2004. And he wants to hire a couple more skilled craftsmen.
Technology and economic change have caused the tides to shift on the political front as well. And Mr. Becker's hope is that Racine will become a more prosperous community straddling a residential, industrial and service corridor along Lake Michigan, within commuting distance of both Milwaukee to the north and Chicago to the south — a diverse, balanced local economy. Help toward that goal should come from a planned 32-mile extension to a commuter railway, underwritten with public funds, that will link Racine to Milwaukee and Chicago. It is expected to be completed in the next few years. Racine is prepared, having already completed a $1.4 million station. Projects like this, Mr. Becker said, are crucial if Racine wants to forge stronger links with the regional economy and global markets.
He says that even with the successful public investments Racine has made, luring new businesses has been a challenge. The unemployment rate in Racine County is declining, though at 5.6 percent it is above the national rate of 4.6 percent. In the city itself, unemployment hovers at about 9 percent. Parts of Racine are pocked with former factory sites, known as brownfields, which can take years to refurbish to meet strict environmental standards and to equip with new roads and utilities.
A corporate vote of confidence came in May when private developers announced plans to build the $200 million Pointe Blue, which will include more than 500 condominiums and apartments, green space and parks. The project will be situated along Racine's waterfront, on land where an auto parts plant once stood.
The lead developer on the project is the KeyBridge Development Group. The company's president, Scott C. Fergus, was born and raised in Racine. KeyBridge, based in Waukesha, Wis., has focused on development projects in Milwaukee and Madison. But Mr. Fergus says he has been impressed by Racine's efforts to integrate with the wider economy, in the region and beyond.
"Racine is beginning to thrive because it is looking outward," he said. "That's why I'm coming back."