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Next Step : A Summit of Citizens : ‘It’s hard to be a philanthropist if you’re struggling to feed your own kids,’ says mayor of troubled steel town.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two countries. Two leaders. Two sets of urgent national priorities.

In Vancouver, Canada, this weekend, the presidents of Russia and the United States are to meet, with emergency support for Russia the chief item on their agenda.

But what do their citizens think? Should Americans give more aid? Will it do Russians much good?

Can it buy both peoples a better future?

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Here are dispatches from the countries’ heartlands, from towns as different as classical ballet and a quarterback sneak, yet also similar in many ways.

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Around these parts, a conversation doesn’t take very long before it comes down to one of three subjects: football, steelmaking or what “all those crooks in Washington” are cooking up to take more from honest folks in the way of taxes.

When it comes to money, “people around here are pretty conservative,” says Brenda Jarvis, 33, a divorced mother of two who tends bar at Benders Taproom, a downtown eatery that, save for the addition of a stuffed sailfish, hasn’t changed much since the day it first began serving the carriage crowd in 1902. “Round here, folks count their pennies and know better than to spend what they don’t have.”

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Frugality is one of the enduring values--two others being a strong work ethic and a mom-and-apple-pie sense of patriotism--that the hardy Pennsylvania Dutch and European immigrants who settled here more than 100 years ago bequeathed to their descendants in this patch of northeastern Ohio.

In these gently rolling hills, dotted now with factories, suburban malls, VFWs and Rotary Clubs, can be found what the politicians back in Washington, in their endless speeches, often refer to as the “heartland” of America. And while there are unmistakable signs that the recovery is finally under way here, there is also no escaping the obvious fact that, for a long time now, the heart has been bleeding.

“We’ve been through a long period of decline,” concedes Mayor Richard Watkins, a Republican who three years ago capitalized on widespread dissatisfaction with Canton’s inner-city decay to handily defeat longtime Democratic incumbent Sam Purses. “In the last 20 years, we’ve witnessed a flight of capital from the city that only now are we beginning to stem.”

Canton, which has a sister-city relationship with Krasnodar, Russia, and may soon establish one with Klin, is also beginning to look for economic opportunities outside its--and the nation’s--borders. One local firm, Galt Alloys, has already done $500,000 worth of barter business with Russia and is negotiating for more. “There are a lot of opportunities for Canton and Russia to trade equipment and training in exchange for raw materials,” Watkins said.

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The city has a famous son--President William McKinley--and a claim to fame as the cradle of pro football. The American Professional Football Assn., forerunner of the National Football League, was formed in Ray Hay’s downtown garage, and football has been a consuming passion ever since the 1920s, when a young man named Jim Thorpe played for the Canton Bulldogs.

But if a passion for football runs in the blood, it is steel that constitutes the flesh and bones of this once-thriving manufacturing hub of 86,000 people in the center of Stark County. “Steel is Canton and Canton is steel. Simple as that,” says R.K. Brady, a retired police captain who now holds court most weekday afternoons at the far end of Benders bar. “Steel was what built this place and steel is what keeps it alive today.”

When the steel industry stumbled in the late 1970s, Canton fell with it, and over the next decade it lost 17,000 jobs and 26% of its manufacturing base. With the jobs went the people; Canton’s population, though steady in recent years, is nearly 20% lower than what it was 20 years ago. And with the people went the retail outlets, which moved to the suburbs and left the downtown area looking eerily like a ghost town.

Finally, says the mayor, all this is starting to change. A new downtown mall is planned, and commercial space is being renovated as businesses are enticed back by incentives from the city. And the Football Hall of Fame--still the jewel in Canton’s tarnished crown--has just announced plans for an $8-million expansion funded jointly by the NFL and a consortium of local businesses.

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Local businessmen share the mayor’s optimism. “Steel is still this area’s base business, and, although we’ve been through some rough times, we see business picking up,” said Howard McGuirk, president of Galt Alloys, a supplier of specialty metals to the steel industry.

Michael Hanke, editor of the local newspaper, the Repository, says his advertising revenues have increased by 6% for the second year running and adds that the paper has just completed a $40-million renovation of its downtown offices--"something we would never have done if we thought this economy was going belly up.”

Hanke dates the beginning of the regional recovery to The Timken Co.'s decision to build a $500-million steel plant in Canton in the mid-1980s. Today, Timken, with 7,000 employees, is the city’s largest employer, followed by Republic Engineered Steel with 5,000.

But with unemployment still at 13%, it is clear that, like a patient slowly recuperating from a debilitating injury, Canton is not fully back on its feet. Indeed, word that a recovery is under way seems not to have reached the malls and the taverns where the unemployed and the hourly wage workers nurse their beers and trade dark rumors about more plant closings and layoffs--anxieties that still gnaw at the collective consciousness of this city’s predominantly blue-collar work force like a bleeding ulcer.

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Under these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that, even though Canton has a large immigrant population and budding commercial relations with several Russian cities, people don’t spend too much of their time thinking about foreign affairs.

But ask folks around here about giving money to Russia or other countries and, once they get over their surprise about being asked the question at all, they respond with a vehemence that more than validates warnings by lawmakers in Washington that foreign aid, never popular, has even less support this year.

“Hell no!” says an unemployed retail clerk, who was laid off five years ago and has found only odd jobs ever since. “My feeling about foreign aid is it ought to be cut off altogether. If this country kept its nose out of foreign affairs, and paid more attention to its own, maybe we wouldn’t have all the problems we have here today.”

It’s not so much that the people of Canton are stingy--or even all that isolationist. On the contrary, church groups do a booming business soliciting contributions of clothing, food and medicine for Russia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially from Canton’s large Croatian community.

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But rightly or wrongly--and perhaps encouraged by the incendiary rhetoric of Ross Perot--the notion that their government is willing to do for people overseas what it won’t do for those back home, even while it raises their taxes to do it, has taken root here and given rise to a profound anger.

“The frustrations are understandable,” Mayor Watkins said. “It’s hard to be a philanthropist if you’re struggling to feed your own kids.”

Kim Barger, 29, divorced, mother of three boys and shift leader at a local Taco Bell, is a case in point. Interrupted during her coffee break, Barger was momentarily taken aback by the appearance at the Canton Centre Mall of a big-city reporter wanting to know what she thought of foreign aid. She pursed her lips for a moment. Then it all came out:

“I’m sorry, but I have a real problem with our government giving money to other countries when they won’t help the homeless or other people who need it back home. . . . That’s what our government should be doing. Taking care of its own first. . . . Why can’t they just open their eyes and see what’s going on in our own country? They need to help us out a little bit. There are those of us who are trying, but we could use a little help because we’re really struggling. . . . I try, but I walk into a brick wall every time, and the government just doesn’t seem to see the problem.”

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Barger’s three boys--Eddie, 7, Mikey, 5 and Chad, 3--all have health problems. Eddie and Mikey have asthma, and Chad was born with a small hole in his heart. Divorced from a husband who has left the state and stopped paying child support, Barger must support all three kids on a wage of $5 an hour. She receives no health benefits.

Even though it means she won’t get to see her kids at all, she’s looking “desperately” for a second job to make ends meet--a tough assignment because her hours at Taco Bell vary.

“I just hang onto the hope that someday they’ll promote me and I’ll go up to $7 an hour,” she said. “In the meantime, I’ve got to hold onto what I’ve got because there’s nothing else out there and, God, I don’t want to raise my boys on the streets.”

Part of Canton’s bitterness springs from the fact that the high-paying manufacturing jobs once so plentiful in this area have been replaced by much lower-paying service industry occupations--jobs that are often part time and offer none of the security or medical benefits taken for granted here 20 years ago.

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“Yeah, sure they say people are working, but for what?” asks Frank Pariano, a 55-year-old former metalworker at a Ford Motor Co. plant that closed five years ago. “They’re workin’ for minimum wage is what. In all these restaurants,” he says, waving his hand around the circle of fast-food stalls lining the Canton Centre mall. “In all these damn restaurants! And this used to be a steel town!”

It is not particularly easy for someone who used to make $20 an hour to now accept $5. Or for some big and burly man used to hammering steel all his life to now pat hamburger patties on buns. “No,” admits Pariano, stabbing his cigarette into a tin ashtray, “it’s not so easy.”

This is the well of bitterness one taps into when asked to venture into the American heartland to find out what ordinary people think about foreign aid. It may pale in comparison to the hardships that Croatians or Russians or Somalis are currently experiencing, but it is nonetheless real and is confirmed by a recent national poll, taken on March 5, which indicated that Americans oppose giving more aid to Russia by a margin of nearly two to one.

While not nearly so scientific, the random interviews conducted in the malls, taverns and other gathering places of Canton last week found that, of the more than two dozen people surveyed, only one professed to enthusiastically support foreign aid.

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“Sure, I’m all for foreign aid,” said Don Smith, public relations director of the Football Hall of Fame. “But just tell me, which country is going to give it to us?”

Biography

* Name: Richard D. Watkins

* Title: Mayor of Canton

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* Age: 62

* Personal: Native of Canton. President of Stark Enterprises security firm. City Council member, 1970-80. Stark County commissioner, 1981-1988. Won election as mayor in 1991.

* Quote: ‘We’ve witnessed a flight of capital from the city that only now are we beginning to stem.’

Canton, Ohio

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* POPULATION: 86,000

* UNEMPLOYMENT RATE: 13%

* MAJOR INDUSTRY: Steel

* POLITICS (Stark County): 40% voted for Bill Clinton, 35% for George Bush, 24% for Ross Perot in 1992.

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