Recession is nothing new here
By Deborah Caulfield Rybak
Star Tribune of Minneapolis
LONG PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When it comes to shining examples of prosperity in Minnesota, Todd County has never been a contender -- not by a long shot.
Instead, the county usually vies for the inglorious title of poorest in the state. In 1999, the most recent year for which figures are available, Todd ranked dead last for per-capita income -- $17,369 -- according to the Minnesota Department of Economic Security. By comparison, Hennepin County's per-capita income was $42,313 a year.
The farmers in the largely agricultural county of 24,426 residents are being decimated by low dairy and crop prices. More recently, a glitch in the state's 2001 tax bill -- which promised property-tax breaks for all Minnesotans -- drove up property taxes in Todd by about 25 percent.
"That's the highest percentage in the state," said Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, who represents the county in the Legislature. "It's going to kill my people."
In the past decade, neighboring Cass, Crow Wing and Douglas counties have seen their property values soar and their cities prosper thanks to the boom in lake homes, golf courses and tourism. To the south, St. Cloud in Stearns County has benefitted from its proximity to Interstate Highway 94 and the Twin Cities.
Meanwhile, Todd County's largest cities, Long Prairie and Staples, have languished, with about 3,000 residents each. Browerville is the next most populous town, with about 750 people.
"When I was in high school, Long Prairie and Alexandria used to be the same size," Otremba said. But Alexandria has since tripled in size, to 9,000 people.
"Our county's got two stoplights and a blinker," said Alex Weego, executive director of the Todd County Development Corp. "There aren't a lot of lakes or natural resources. Our prime industry is agriculture, and we've taken a beating. A couple of years ago, we had as many as 60 farms up for auction in a six-month period."
But recession here, 161 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, isn't simply a darker version of what is occurring in more-prosperous areas.
Instead, local businesses and workers are hanging in there and in some cases prospering, showing how adaptable an economy can be -- even one that's been residing in an economic netherworld since as far back as 1965, when Todd County was one of three nationwide selected to receive a slew of federal and state aid as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty.
"Todd County never had an economic boom; therefore it's not going through much of a bust," surmised Jay Mousa, director of the research and statistics office for the Department of Economic Security.
Mark Deterding, Banta Publications Group manufacturing vice president, describes his Long Prairie plant as "an oasis of prosperity." With 600 workers and $100 million in annual revenue, Banta, which publishes specialty magazines, is the largest employer in Todd County. Deterding's company has had only one small layoff -- 16 people -- and that was related to changes in technology, not the recession. But Deterding said his workers, who average about $13.50 an hour, have seen less overtime this year.
"We normally run six to 61⁄2; days a week; now we're running 41⁄2; to five," Deterding said, attributing the pullback to reduced ad pages, "which is everything for us."
Yet if Long Prairie's most highly paid workers are suffering a little, the recession that has been a dominant issue in more prosperous areas is hardly noticed by many of the county's newest low-wage workers.
Gloria Edin, who heads the county's Community Hispanic Liaison office, said that from her vantage point, "everyone is doing just fine."
Edin pointed to a recent $3 million expansion at the Long Prairie meatpacking plant. Most of the workers there are Hispanics who have been moving to the area in increasing numbers during the past few years.
"There are jobs being offered, and there are people available to take the jobs," she said. In some cases, the county's newest residents are stepping into the commercial void left by others.
"A group of Latinos just purchased a building, opened La Michoacan (a specialty grocery) and have already rented the apartments above," Edin said. Another group is looking to open a central marketplace that would have a variety of shops, she said.
"There may be pockets of people or people with certain skills who may not be able to find jobs right now," Edin acknowledged. "But our new immigrants are improving the economy."
Weego pointed to Dan's Prize, a subsidiary of Hormel, which just opened a second plant in the county, as being particularly helpful to farm families.
"They are slated to add 100 jobs, which will allow a lot of farmers to have a member of the family working there for additional income," he said.
In Staples, which straddles the border of Todd and Wadena counties, the economy has never recovered from the demise of the railroad. Jerel Nelsen, executive director of the Staples Economic Development Authority, acknowledges that even now, "you have to leave town to buy a shirt." The last clothing store closed years ago.
"That's just a fact of life for us," he said. "We can't compete price- or selection-wise with the mall in St. Cloud."
Staples might be able to compete for one distinction: The state's canary in a coal mine. Members of the predominant machine trades sector there started feeling the effect of the recession before it officially started.
"Some old-time machinists say that the machine trades are six months ahead of the economy," Nelsen said. "Ours started slowing down 15 months ago."
While there have been no large layoffs, shifts were cut and skeleton crews used until recently, when business began to pick up again.
"I think people are more optimistic," Nelsen said. "And it's happening just in time."
Cause for worry
Despite the optimism of Todd County's economic development executives, the county remains home to deep pockets of poverty, lacks an educated work force and has a paucity of jobs that pay more than $10 an hour. For those involved in helping Todd County's least-fortunate citizens find work, the recession holds darker ramifications.
Lucy Franz and Kim Pilgrim oversee a seven-county Displaced Homemaker program with a $116,000 budget from the Department of Trade and Economic and Development. The program, known as META 5, helps people, mostly women, find jobs -- often the first ones they've ever had.
"These are women who have been dependent on somebody else for the source of income and have lost that due to death, divorce, separation, abandonment or disability," Franz said. The caseload goes up in a recession.
"Domestic violence and divorce increase in hard times," Pilgrim said. Last year, the caseload was about 160; this year -- judging from the first few months -- they expect that number to top 240, with work prospects dim.
"The jobs are not here," Pilgrim said. "A lot of people are leaving the county to find employment."