Column: Few answers are available in the midst of economic pain

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Despite the cuteness of Wilbur and the cleverness of Babe, pigs are not my favorite animals. And the reason is no secret: When gathered together in large numbers, they reek. All I have to do to confirm that is take a step outside my door on any hot, humid day.

Pigs are, however, an important component of the midwestern agricultural economy. Consumers like to eat ham, bacon and pork chops &045; the other white meat &045; and so pigs are fattened up, slaughtered and processed. In Freeborn County, farmers will still be doing the first, but the other two will continue to happen elsewhere, now that the mysterious &uot;Premium Pork&uot; corporation says it’s locating its new slaughterhouse in St. Joseph, Mo. It’s probably just as well; if they had built here, we would have spent far too much time trying to interpret their contradictory press releases.

It’s not fair, I can almost hear people saying. First it was the UPS warehouse, then the Winnebago assembly plant, the new facility for the now-bankrupt Farmland, and the Ford distribution center. Now a new pork plant has slipped through our fingers. It’s just not fair. We worked hard on our incentives. We sent community VIPs to court and flatter them. We convinced state government to help out. And they still didn’t like us as much as they liked some other community somewhere else. It’s not fair!

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Who should we blame? I suppose we could just pick our favorite enemies: The corporate executives making the decisions, the community VIPs who don’t appear to be doing enough, the cranky letter writers and back stabbers who seem to want everything to fall apart or everyone to move away. Maybe it’s the high taxes (except that they aren’t so high anymore). Maybe it’s the lack of workers (but there’s a lot of people unemployed and underemployed around here right now).

Maybe no one is to blame. To paraphrase the man in black (from the film &uot;Princess Bride&uot;): Life isn’t fair, citizens; anyone saying otherwise is selling something. Life has never been fair, no matter how good we try to be. There don’t have to be any scapegoats for us to heap scorn and insults on. The North American economy isn’t very healthy. Many communities have to deal with economic problems, while good jobs continue to move outside our borders to countries like China and India &045; where workers get paid far less.

So Albert Lea and Freeborn County will continue to struggle with job growth.

The loss of so many factory jobs is going to sting for a while, but we aren’t dead yet. We have many small, successful businesses manufacturing items for industrial and consumer use. The business development center is helping some entrepreneurs transform their dreams into financial success.

However, with most new manufacturing jobs moving to other countries, we need to see decisions to build major retail operations here as a sign of success. Wal-Mart’s new superstore will open this fall. Home Depot is still here. New motels and restaurants have opened or are planned. We’re going to have to get used to selling clothing and appliances and buying food from each other.

One thing I would like to know, though, is what happened to the Rural Telework Initiative that the late Sen. Paul Wellstone worked so hard on? Those customer service and technical support jobs that are being contracted out to workers in Pakistan and India could be located here. In this county we already have the technology, the educational institutions, and the workforce necessary. Is the Federal government dragging its feet when it comes to providing access to jobs for Americans? Is there anything more we can do here in Freeborn County to get the attention of the companies currently looking overseas for employees?

While we can’t pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist, we won’t find the answers to economic success for our community out there anywhere. The answers are here at home. We need more local residents to start thinking unconventionally about the kinds of jobs they want and how to get or create them. So the most important question remains this one: What are we &045; all of us working together &045; willing to do to help make Freeborn County a great place to both grow a business and raise children?

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.