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‘We didn’t just shrink’

This photo shows Wilson Co. employees trimming pork. No date provided. This type of industry has provided a way of life for many in the community. -- Photo courtesy Freeborn County Historical Museum

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series looking back on the Farmland Foods fire of July 8, 2001, in Albert Lea.

When Farmland Foods burned in 2001, one of the immediate effects on the community was a loss of hundreds of jobs.

Five hundred people were sent scrambling to seek unemployment benefits and to ultimately find new jobs.

Now, 10 years later, however, Albert Lea has recouped these jobs and diversified its job market, according to local business leaders.

“One of the lessons we learned from the fire is that job diversity, industrial diversity, is important,” said Randy Kehr, executive director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce. The community’s employees have also improved their job mobility.

Employees that had been working in the Farmland Foods plant for 20 to 30 years found new jobs in different markets and some even turned to using their talents to lift up nonprofit organizations. Some continued in the meatpacking industry at different companies.

At the time of the fire, Farmland Foods was tied with Albert Lea Area Schools as the third-largest company in Albert Lea, both with 500 employees, according to numbers from the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce in 2000. The largest employer was Albert Lea Medical Center with almost 1,100 employees, and the second-largest employer was Streater with 700 employees.

In the height of its operation, however, Farmland — which was under several different names through the years — was the largest employer in the city with more than 1,300 jobs.

Albert Lea Economic Development Agency Executive Director Dan Dorman said he often hears people say the community hasn’t grown since the fire, but the reality is that it has.

“There were 500 jobs that needed to be replaced in the community,” he said. “Sure we haven’t added 500 from where we were at before the fire in 2001, but we were able to add those jobs back that were lost.”

Many of those came under the state-initiated Jobs Opportunity Building Zones program that was put in place in 2003, and which has since helped create more than 650 jobs in the community, according to a JOBZ audit conducted in 2010.

Of those jobs, Albert Lea Select Foods, a pork processing plant, has created at least 500 employees, and there have been numerous other operations to see increases of 10 to 30 employees.

According to the audit, there has been $47 million in capital investment made in the community through the program.

“We didn’t just shrink,” said Dorman. “We’ve added the jobs back.”

According to the most recent available job numbers, Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea remains the largest employer in the city; however, also in the top 10 largest employers now is Select Foods, Cargill, Lou-Rich, Walmart and two nursing homes.

Dorman said there is a large skilled work force in Albert Lea, but there are more people who work outside of the city now than there were in 2001.

Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen said while the job scene has changed in Albert Lea, he thinks Albert Lea is still mostly an agricultural-based community.

“Most of our businesses or job opportunities stem out of that,” he said.

Rasmussen also noted that many of the job losses that the city has incurred since the Farmland fire — for example at Streater — have come because of increased automation.

By the numbers:

• 500: Estimate of jobs lost from the Farmland Foods fire in 2001
• 665: Jobs created in Albert Lea from 2003 through 2010 from the Jobs Opportunity Building Zones program.
• 47 million: Amount in capital investment that has been put into the area through the JOBZ program.
• 33: Percentage of Albert Lea employers with annual payrolls between $1 million and $15 million a year.
• 50: Percentage of Albert Lea employers with annual payrolls of $500,000 or less.
• 30: Percentage of chamber businesses that have created more jobs in the last year, according to a 2010 chamber survey.

The area’s top industrial employers

Sept. 2000 estimate

Employer                    No. of employees
1. Albert Lea Medical Center            1,081
2. Streater                    700
3. Albert Lea School District 241        500
4. Farmland Foods                500
5. Schweigert Foods                342
6. St. John’s Lutheran Home            326
7. Good Samaritan Center            280
8. Lou-Rich of Albert Lea            199
9. Ventura Foods                167
10. Thorne Crest Center            143
— Information from the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce based on the responses given. For several participants, the total reported may have included employees in other localities.

Sept. 2010 estimate

Employer                    No. of employees
1. Albert Lea Medical Center            1,131
2. Albert Lea Area Schools            463
3. Albert Lea Select Foods            398
4. Cargill                    353
5. Walmart                    320
6. Riverland Community College        296
7. St. John’s Lutheran Home            292
8. Good Samaritan Society of Albert Lea    285
9. Hy-Vee Food Store                285
10. Lou-Rich Inc.                276
— Information from the Albert Lea Economic Development Agency based on responses to surveys. For several participants in the survey, the totals may include employees at other localities, plus part-time employees.