Editorial: Loss of plant may not have been avoidable

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 19, 2003

The impending closing of the ConAgra Foods plant in Wells, which will leave more than 200 people out of work, is exactly the kind of economic catastrophe Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the legislature wanted to help avoid with the state’s new &uot;JOBZ&uot; tax-free zones.

It’s just the kind of situation that politicians and business leaders have been moaning about for years: A company needs to expand or relocate and they wind up choosing a different state, presumably where taxes are lower or workers’ compensation rates are more favorable for business. Tax cuts and the new JOBZ zones have been sold as concerted efforts to make Minnesota more attractive to businesses.

The state won’t dole out its tax-free zones until next year, so it may have been too late for them to make a difference for ConAgra. However, the company, which has stayed in the small town of Wells for years thanks in part to city incentives, says the move is not about money &045; even though it is getting tax abatements in Texas, where it will expand an existing plant. Reading between the lines of the company’s statements, it seems the company needed to expand its capacity and wasn’t interested in doing it in a small town with an aging population. Perhaps that’s because there isn’t enough available labor, or maybe it really is because the incentives are better in Texas. Maybe it’s both.

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It’s possible that the JOBZ zones wouldn’t have made a difference. After all, Texas has a powerful magnet for these kinds of jobs: A large pool of cheap labor. No tax-free zone can bring Minnesota geographically closer to Mexico.

Clearly, even with tax-free zones in place, Minnesota will still find itself on the losing end of some of these business decisions. That’s how it works in the maddening world of economic development, where you can put a good deal on the table but still lose out because of factors you don’t control.