Talk About Your Company Town

Corning, N. Y., is a very small place: In a town of 12,000, news travels fast. Even so, not everyone knows who bought, then shuttered, two seedy downtown taverns last year. Or who got rid of the dump site along Route 17. Or who owns the Texaco station.

The answer: Corning Inc. More than the biggest employer in town, Corning plays benefactor, landlord, and social engineer. The company is half-owner of a racetrack and sponsors a professional golf tournament. Affordable housing, day care, new business development--it's doing all that, too.

Corning is more directly involved in its community than most big U. S. corporations. In part, it's tradition: The company and its founding Houghton family have dominated community affairs for most of the century. Corning bought shares in the town's fledgling chamber of commerce in 1914, built a hotel in 1927, and funded an apartment complex 10 years later. When a flood in 1972 put the town under 10 feet of water, the company paid area teenagers to rehabilitate damaged homes and appliances, then spent millions to build a new library and skating rink.

CORPORATE ACTIVISM. But Corning's recent efforts have been more focused--and, it admits, far less passive. They aim to turn a remote, insular town into a place that will appeal to the smart professionals Corning wants to attract--a place that offers social options for young singles, support for new families, and cultural diversity for minorities.

It's a strategy that often borders on corporate socialism. Corning bought the rundown bars--which "didn't fit with our objective," says one executive--as part of a block-long redevelopment of Market Street, the town's main commercial strip. It will move a black-owned hairdressing shop from a nearby mall to one of the vacated retail spaces. Through constant lobbying and a $5,000 payment, Corning persuaded the dump owner to move.

More important, Corning is working to create a region less dependent on its headquarters and 15 factories. The company is now more dominant than it would like: Manufacturing has fallen sharply in nearby Elmira, and this year, low milk prices have crippled many local dairy farmers.

To help support the flagging local economy, Corning bought the Watkins Glen auto-racing track, which had slipped into bankruptcy. It rebuilt the facility, took in a managing partner, and last summer, saw the track host 200,000 visitors. Similarly, the company lobbied a supermarket chain to build an enormous new store. It persuaded United Parcel Service to locate a regional hub nearby and donated land for two small-business "incubators" that offer help to small companies.

In all, Corning expects its Corning Enterprises subsidiary, which spearheads community investments, to bring 200 new jobs to the Chemung River valley each year. It also wants to boost the number of tourists by 2% annually and attract four new businesses to town. Corning Enterprises funds its activities largely with rental income from real estate that it has purchased and rehabilitated.

Relations between town and company aren't always smooth. Last summer, when Chairman and CEO James R. Houghton announced Corning's intent to donate a riverfront park in honor of the city's bicentennial, he took the occasion to publicly criticize city officials. The city council promptly turned down the park offer--though it later relented.

And for all the effort, the town of Corning is still undeniably, well, small. James W. Wheat Jr., now an assistant treasurer, first drove up from Manhattan seven years ago to look around. "We came into this one-horse town, and my wife said, `Let's go home.' " But they stayed. Today, Wheat's two daughters attend Corning public schools, and his wife, Panchit, sells her small crafts. For now, anyway, they're sold on small-town life.

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