Fearful Mason City misses Storm Lake opportunities

By DAVID KRUSE

President, CommStock Investments

The Des Moines Register’s front page bold headline read, “Did Racism Kill Pork Plant Deal?” They were referring to the Mason City, Iowa, City Council voting down the Prestage hog plant that was planning on locating there after the council first voted to approve it. An earlier vote taken by the council unanimously invited Prestage Farms from North Carolina to build a $240 million hog processing plant there, bringing 2,000 jobs to the city of 27,704. After the council was subjected to angry citizens who opposed the plant and the carpet-bagging Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI) interjected its typical negativism, a subsequent vote broke 3-3 and the mayor, who reportedly supported the plant, could not vote to break the tie because of a rules technicality.

Ron Prestage blamed the vote telling him to leave on a careful campaign of misinformation and blatant racism. Ron said, “Being a Southerner, I’m used to the fact that people think that racism resides in the South. It was very apparent among some that racism is alive and well in Mason City and in Northern Iowa as well.” The Register said that one of the city council members agreed with Ron, claiming that most of the e-mails and phone calls she received were, “We don’t want those people in our community.”

Ron was right. It was a combination of the two things. First off, ICCI is many things that I don’t care for and the organization’s whole purpose seems to be to undermine any economic progress in the state but they are not racists. They are liberal activists with an agenda that is annoying but not racist. They were behind the campaign of misinformation. That is what they do. They had more impact on a smaller community like Mason City than they could in the instance where Triumph Foods is building a similar plant in Sioux City. 

Prestage Farms was poorly prepared to manage such opposition and Mason City was a lesson in public relations management that they needed to learn. Ron Prestage called them “kooks” so it didn’t take him long to get to know them. Industry insiders told me that Prestage had not invested enough in community outreach and the Iowa Pork Producers Association did not have the resources or the chutzpah to step up and help Prestage to the degree that they should have to counter the misinformation campaign that everyone knows that ICCI will bring to any such proposed venture wherever they attempt to build it. 

The racism charge is cultural and local to the region. It is typically expressed in a phrase such as, “We don’t want the problem from ‘those people’ that Storm Lake, Iowa has!” What problem might that be? Storm Lake has both Tyson and Hillshire Farms hog and turkey processing plants within their city limits. The populations of Mason City and other regional towns such as Fort Dodge and Charles City being considered by Prestage have declined since 1990 in atrophy. The population of Storm Lake, however, has grown 17% over that period.

What about “those people”? Storm Lake has enjoyed cultural and ethnic diversity more consistent with major cities and the rest of the world as a result of the workforce attracted to the jobs there. A lot of small town rural Iowans fear that exposure as it is different than what they are used to and will believe any negative innuendo associated with it.

Our school system in Spirit Lake plays in the same sports conference with Storm Lake so I have interacted with the Storm Lake school system following our son’s sports. Storm Lake Middle School has nearly 30 different national flags hung on the walls of the lunch room representing the nations from which their student’s parents came from. In my opinion, the Storm Lake school system has done a fantastic job of assimilation of all the various cultures and ethnic differences into an American school and my take is that the students that graduate from there will be more ready for the real world than those graduating from Mason City.

Storm Lake looks like a thriving progressive town and what they learned is that “those people” work hard, are of good character and want their children to succeed. The interaction between the kids of these school systems has been so positive that it makes me proud. The next generation will not have the problems with diversity of the last.

Mason City is missing out on something good. Their city is far larger than Storm Lake so the assimilation would have been much easier. Now if Prestage decides to work with another community to build its hog plant in Iowa that better appreciates them, ICCI will just move there too, causing as much disruption, fear and propagandizing to muddle the project as they can. The racists, who are simply generally good people who don’t know any better, to whatever degree that they exist, are already there and will be voting for Steve King and Donald Trump to get rid of as many of “those people” as they can. Do not construe that to mean that all who vote for those two are racists…they are not.

From a business standpoint this reversal, pulling the rug out from under the Prestage plant’s welcome, will damage Mason City’s credibility.

Governor Branstad is not happy about this. The state went to lot of work and investment to bring a company and jobs to a community that said they wanted them until they said they had lied and didn’t. I believe that the characterization of Mason City and the region of Northern Iowa as being anti-business is undeserved, but they let three gutless wonders on the city council that didn’t have the resolve to stand up to the noise, intimidation and misinformation that accompanies this type of proposed venture, throw the city’s and region’s reputation into question. It will take alot of work and time to undo that damage.

Prestage Farms now gets a “re-set” where they can use the experience that they have gained, applying it to the process of finding a suitable site for their hog processing plant. What has happened actually revealed the unfortunate truth that that site was not Mason City. It was their loss. They blew it.

David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments, Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet. CommStock Investments is a registered CTA, as well as an introducing brokerage. CommStock Investments, Inc., 207 Main St., Royal, IA, 712-933-9400, www.commstock.com. E-mail info@commstock.com.