At the Hershey Story museum on West Chocolate Avenue in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a video “imagining Utopia” plays to tourists visiting the home town of America’s largest chocolate maker.
The video acknowledges the historic influence of Bournville, England, the model village set up by George Cadbury, the UK chocolate maker, in the 1890s. The village was a model for Milton S Hershey as he set up a new chocolate factory and then a town in the rural fields of Derry Township, Pennsylvania.
But 100 years later, as Hershey considers a possible bid for Cadbury, its home town has turned into a subsidised community that is unique in the US, as a result of Mr Hershey’s decision to take his inspiration from Mr Cadbury in a very different direction.
Pamela Whitenack, who looks after the community archives at Hershey, notes that Cadbury encouraged non-Cadbury workers to live in Bournville. “Bournville really developed very separately from the chocolate business. But with Hershey, Milton Hershey had a vision for his chocolate business, and for the town he wants to create.”
While Bournville is now economically part of the larger city of Birmingham, Hershey and the roughly 20,000 people in its vicinity, remains heavily dependent on the legacy of Milton Hershey – who died without heirs – and his company.
Some 2,500 workers are employed at the Hershey Company’s three factories. But 8,500 full or part-time others work for the Hersheypark theme park, stadium, Hershey Bears hockey team, hotels and convention centre. The entertainment properties, as well as about a third of the economic interest of the Hershey company itself, are all owned by the Milton Hershey School Trust.
Proceeds from the trust fund the Milton Hershey School, which looks after about 1,800 pupils at a property on the south of the town.
The separate MS Hershey Foundation, established in 1935, funds local civic amenities, including the local Hershey Gardens Park, the chocolate museum and the 600 seat Hershey Theatre, a restored lavish building that boasts a 4,100 pipe organ. The foundation also supported the creation of the Penn State Milton S Hershey Medical Center, a teaching hospital that just broke ground on a planned new $244m children’s facility.
A third fund, set up after Mr Hershey’s death in 1945, also subsidises the costs of the local public school system – easing what is one of the largest financial burdens on local communities in the US.
The funding helps sustain a town whose neat, middle-class streets stand in contrast to the urban blight that has affected other communities in a state that has struggled with the loss of jobs in its old steel and coal industries.
“People who are born and raised here take all of this for granted ... it’s not till they have finished their education and go somewhere else and get a job and their first home that they realise the rest of the world is not this way,” says Ms Whitenack, who moved to Hershey in 1985. “It’s only then they realise how amazing this place is.”
The company’s presence also plays a part in discouraging too much discussion over Hershey’s possible interest in Cadbury. While the Hershey Trust and company maintain silence, Michael Pries, the elected chairman of the township management board, declined to comment on whether or not people were following the issue. Local county and state representatives did not return calls.
The political sensitivity of Hershey’s future was demonstrated in 2002, when the prospect of the Hershey Trust selling the Hershey Company to Chicago-based William Wrigley – a historic rival – resulted in a vociferous community revolt.
Dennis Bomberger, an official with the Chocolate Workers union that represents workers at two of the town’s plants, says his union supported the drive because of fears of job losses. “We were totally against that; we joined he community efforts to stop it.”
Subsequently, the company has seen 550 jobs lost in Hershey and almost 300 in the nearby city of Reading, as part of restructuring efforts that have also led to Hershey starting a new factory to serve its US market in Monterrey, Mexico.
But Mr Bomberger says Hershey workers are not yet paying much attention to talk of a bid for Cadbury that could require Hershey to take on ambitious levels of debt, with the risk of more cost-cutting.