Muncie, Indiana is like many other cities throughout the Midwest. With booming industries from the late 19th century into the 20th century, with the founding of natural gas mining, the Ball Corporation and the auto industry made it a blue-collar town with hard-working individuals.

That all changed about 20 years ago. Between 1995 and 2011, overall employment in Delaware county fell 24 percent. A major cause of the downturn was the auto industry leaving Muncie, causing unemployment to rise to 10.4 percent in 2009, according to Ball State University's Center for Business and Economic Research, or CBER. 

Cecil Bohanon is a professor of economics and 38-year resident of Muncie. 

“Free countries are dynamic places and change all the time, “It’s the nature of things,” he said.

“Without manufacturing there’s a lot of empty houses and now the biggest employers in Muncie are Ball State and Ball Memorial,” Bohanon said  “We don’t employ a lot of people in putting together stuff and it’s not because of China, it’s because we’re getting ways to put together stuff without as many people.” 

“What we got is Ball State and when we get a reasonably-run school system fixed, we may be in a position for firms to come in or small businesses to start here to provide goods and employ folks,” Bohanon said.

Some industries, especially in the service sector, bucked the trend. “As Muncie changed from factories to service, it’s not as bad because manufacturing can be dirty and grimy whereas services and education can be fun and interesting,”  Bohanon said.

CBER says the service industry employed 52 percent of workers in Delaware County in 2010 and made up almost 31 percent of the wages. A growing part of the sector is restaurants.

“I started working at a restaurant when I was young and I became a manager at 19,” Bill Goins, 71, one of the owners of Sunshine Cafe said. “We opened in 1972 and were originally a Waffle House.”

In 1972, people did not have a lot of restaurant choices, according to Goins.

“The only steakhouse I knew of was a block or so West of Bruner’s and before McDonald’s there was Burger Chef,” he said. ”A lot of places come and go.”

Newcomers like Lydia Akiti’s Red Apple Cafe opened almost three months ago when she and her husband visited Ball State from Rock Falls, Ill.

“We were just passing by to see our son and we liked the place because of the location so close to Ball State,” Akiti said. “People told us about what it used to be and we found a mess, but we fixed it up and decided we can make it here.” 

If  small businesses want to stay competitive, they have to do something big chains can’t, according to Bohanon. 

“Not everybody wants McDonald’s everyday,” he said. “If you give people value for their money and something they like, you’ll be successful.”

“There’s lean years and better years,” Goins said, speaking from his 45 years of ownership experience. “We just try to do what we do and so far it’s worked. In restaurant business, any business, it’s about your customers. If you don’t treat them well, you won’t be in business long.”

Akiti said they’re happy with the turnout because they didn’t do much advertisement and they’re taking it slow with their staff to train them.

“Customers tell us: ‘please stay in business and we love coming here,’” Akiti said.

“Consumers are very fickle, it’s what we are,” Bohanon said. “Markets are like that too.”


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