Greed imperils Hershey vision of community

August 09, 2002|By Thomas Hylton

A CENTURY ago, when Milton Hershey started building a model town surrounding his chocolate factory in central Pennsylvania, he just about wrote the script for Maryland's Smart Growth movement.

Live near your work? Hershey workers lived so close to the factory they could smell the chocolate. Even the company's chief executive officer lived across the street from the office.

Transit-oriented development? One of Mr. Hershey's first acts was to build a subsidized trolley line so workers could commute from nearby towns.

Sense of community? To keep his employees busy when the Depression set in, Mr. Hershey built a lavish community center, a sports arena, a hotel, a stadium and public school buildings.

Today, Mr. Hershey's beloved chocolate company, Hershey Foods Corp., is on the auction block, and the townspeople are reeling. Selling out to a global conglomerate like Nestle, they say, or worse, to Kraft Foods -- a subsidiary of a cigarette company! -- would surely have Milton Hershey spinning in his grave.

There's nothing new about outsiders taking over a homegrown industry. But Hershey Foods is unique: a Fortune 500 company controlled by a local charity. The current struggle to persuade the Hershey Trust to keep its historic business may be the decade's most prominent contest between "community" and the relentless bottom line.

In 1909, as he was building his 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, Mr. 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 most major 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 Baltimore to Los Angeles.

To safeguard its fabulous wealth through diversification, the Hershey 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 four of its 17 directors live in central 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 of its stock. But trust officers believe they can make more money by an outright sale of the company, which is currently delivering record profits and controls 30 percent of the candy market.

Residents of the town counter that Milton Hershey never envisioned selling the heart and soul of his town. The school is part of Hershey, not the other way around. They have organized rallies, press conferences and letter-writing campaigns to keep Hershey Foods independent.

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 Mr. 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 postwar 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 most 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.

At bottom, that's the mission of Smart Growth -- rediscovering community. Sure, it aims to save open space, protect the environment and make better use of our infrastructure. But above all, it's about making places worth fighting for. Like Hershey, Pennsylvania.

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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