Citizenship Starts At Home

Dec. 21, 2004
Corning Inc. rebuilds its Upstate New York community and plans for Global Charity.

Fifty years ago Corning, N.Y., drew celebrities the likes of Helen Hayes and Carol Channing. Politicians, Russian Orthodox priests, and thousands of tourists flocked to see its glass museum, turning the town into the state's third most popular destination point after Niagara Falls and New York City. But as years of use tattered the museum's displays and scientific exhibitions, people stopped coming. By 1980 Corning became better known as a pit stop between Manhattan and Niagara Falls. Today executives at Corning Inc. are helping to put the town for which the company is named back on the map. Their strategy is to invest money and time in local arts and community service organizations to foster a vibrant neighborhood. Similar efforts are under way at Merck & Co. Inc., whose corporate foundation has donated $1 million toward the establishment of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. The $180 million cultural center anchors downtown Newark, a city making a comeback after decades of decline. And General Motors Corp.'s GM Foundation has provided over $1.2 million to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall, which serves as a pillar of that city's downtown community. Corning's efforts to revive its hometown are emblematic of the company's own decade-long transformation. The kitchenware maker has morphed into a global manufacturer of fiber-optic cables, network components, and other products that help pass information from New York to Singapore and all points in between. Corning's stock is soaring. Still, this builder of the Web's backbone realizes that a thriving local community is more important than ever. Corning devotes approximately 2% of pretax profits to charity. Almost half of that money goes to its hometown -- a 2,150-sq-mi, three-county region. But now that global markets account for 40% of employees and sales, executives are planning to spread the largesse to match the corporation's changing business makeup. Its domestic success in corporate citizenship offers a model for its international ambitions. Corning marks the halfway point between Niagara Falls and New York City. It is not "the middle of nowhere," insist locals, but traveling there can prove arduous. Propeller planes fly to the Elmira/Corning Airport -- an oasis amid farmland and forests-from East Coast and Midwest cities. Amtrak hasn't stopped there in decades, but ShortLine and Trailways buses do. Most people end up driving. The company integrates philanthropy with hard-nosed corporate needs. Recruiting and retaining employees tops the corporation's list of reasons for investing in its hometown. In the last five years Corning hired several hundred scientists from around the world to work in its research and development headquarters for photonics. A few miles outside the town of Corning, physicists, chemists, and other scientists are trying to figure out the future of fiber-optic technology. The $4.2 billion corporation won over these hot prospects by selling them on the community. "Recruiting 700 Ph.D.s is no small task," emphasizes E. Marie McKee, who spent two decades in human resources at Corning before being named chairperson of the Steuben glass unit. She also oversees the Corning Museum of Glass and the Corning Foundation. "These people come for the quality of life and the schools. They want to bring up their children here." So how does a company earn profits, run factories, and help to ensure the vibrancy of its three-county neighborhood? The Corning Museum of Glass is where it all starts. The crown jewel of Corning's local citizenship efforts and the focus of a $65 million restoration bankrolled by the corporation, the museum sparkles with its collections combining art, culture, science, and technology. The museum highlights 35 centuries of glass. There are ancient Mesopotamian glass and antiquities from Europe. The American Gallery follows a history of glass-making -- said to be the first domestic industry -- in the U.S. Cases hold blown candlesticks, liquor flasks, and goblets. When a visitor comes in with an old bottle, found in an attic or while excavating a house, curators are on hand to offer historical details. The glass innovation center features developments by Corning scientists and other inventors. These include fiber-optic innovations powering the Internet. In the hot-glass show glass gaffers demonstrate how Steuben-like glass is crafted. They make pieces on a stage above the actual Steuben factory where workers craft pricey candlesticks, vases, and decorative objects. By 2003 the number of visitors to the museum is expected to jump to 650,000, up from 186,000 in 1998. The corporation, which funds most of the museum's operating budget, estimates that each visitor spends as much as $20 on food and gifts. These purchases represent a healthy boost not only to the museum's cafe and gift shops, but also to the restaurants, glass-blowing workshops, and other boutiques on Market Street. The thriving five-block street that runs through downtown Corning also sparkles, thanks in no small part to contributions from the corporation. Examples of good citizenship, yes, but the museum and renovated Market Street also serve corporate interests. Prospective hires frequently tour the museum to learn about the history of the area. Customers are invited to sit among hulking contemporary glass sculptures for elegant dinners. The restaurants on Market Street offer a private place to negotiate salaries or to conclude a sales call. "Corning has taken the approach that we like to instill in business: the notion that investing in the arts is good for business," explains Judith A. Jedlicka, president of the Business Committee for the Arts Inc. in Manhattan. "The arts should not be treated as a thing that you throw money at, but as an investment that should help a company to increase the bottom line, reach target markets, and help to develop a creative workforce," she adds. Corning has long been associated with corporate citizenship and especially funding for the arts. The Houghton family, who bought a small glass company in 1851 that would become Corning Inc., also helped to establish Lincoln Center. James R. Houghton, retired chairman and CEO, now serves as chairman of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Corning Museum of Glass opened in 1951 to mark the 100th anniversary of Corning Inc. It was dedicated to the manufacture, history, and art of glass. But by 1980 the museum looked tired. It seemed symbolic of tourism and business in Chemung, Schuyler, and Steuben-the three counties on the eastern edge of western New York that hold several Corning operations. The town of Corning, home to the corporate headquarters, looked especially run down. To help restore the town, the museum, and the three counties, the company founded Corning Enterprises in 1983. The organization focuses on economic development. Although Corning already ran a foundation, it wanted an arm to concentrate on local community issues, a unit that was not restricted to funding nonprofit groups. Corning Enterprises began by tidying up Market Street. "You were looking at a 30% vacancy rate," remembers John E. Benjamin, who can see Market Street from the offices of economic development firm Three Rivers Development Corp. Inc. where he is president. The enterprise unit put money toward market analysis to determine what kind of businesses would succeed on Market Street. It also provided money for business recruitment, building renovation, and window displays. It teamed up with Corning Foundation to bring artists to Market Street. Cash from the foundation turned into low-interest loans for a handful of glass artists who agreed to set up workshops. That handful drew other artsy boutiques and restaurants. Market Street now appears on the National Register of Historic Places. Corning Enterprises doesn't shy away from controversy. When officials at the local library warned that they might have to close due to lack of operating funds, some locals began calling on Corning to donate money. The company failed to step in and the library closed in the fall of 1999. "They don't just lay money on the table," explains Benjamin, who has worked with Corning economic development executives for 17 years, and whose firm is funded by the corporation and 32 other businesses. "They say, 'We'll partner with you, we'll pay our fair share, but get contributions from others, too.'" After the library closed Corning Enterprises ponied up $12,500 to fund a strategic plan, and raised cash from other local businesses to fix the building. That prompted officials to offer more government funding for the operating budget. The library is expected to reopen this fall. Next year promises fresh complications and perhaps controversy. Transforming Corning into a global manufacturer involved selling off its consumer goods division in 1998 and acquiring high-tech companies. Many are headquartered overseas. The company has made a small amount of charitable dollars available to managers of international units, but senior executives want to introduce significant philanthropic grants overseas. Donations available to units in 22 locations from St. Petersburg to Shanghai will start going out next year to coincide with the corporation's 150th anniversary. That's a lot to put on the map.

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