In Towns Already Hit by Steel Mill Closings, a New Casualty: Retail Jobs

This city is perhaps still best known for a flood that ravaged it nearly 130 years ago. After rebuilding, Johnstown eventually became prosperous from its steel and offered a clear path to the middle class. For generations, people could walk out of high school and into a steady factory job.

But today, the area bears the marks of a struggling town. Its population has dwindled, and addiction treatment centers and Dollar Generals stand in place of corner grocers and department stores like Glosser Brothers, once owned by the family of Stephen Miller, President Trump’s speechwriter and a policy adviser.

When Mr. Trump spoke about “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” in his Inaugural Address, people like Donald Bonk, a local economic development consultant, assumed that Mr. Miller — who grew up in California but spent summers in Johnstown — was writing about the old Bethlehem Steel buildings that still hug long stretches of the Little Conemaugh River.

The county voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, eight years after it helped to elect Barack Obama. (It also voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but not by as wide a margin.)

Here and in similar towns, when the factory jobs left, a greater share of the work force ended up in retail.

Sometimes that meant big-box retailers like Walmart, which were often blamed for destroying mom-and-pop stores but at least created other jobs for residents. The damage from e-commerce plays out differently. Digital firms may attract customers from small towns, but they are unlikely to employ them.

Some remaining retailers are straining for solutions.

Randy Clark remembers when his Miller’s Clothing Store, a family-run men’s wear shop, employed twice as many people and sold 20 pairs of pants a day. He knows he needs a website, but attracting digital customers is the least of his concerns. Brands that he sells, like Tommy Bahama and Southern Tide,…

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