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Albert Lea: 'On the verge of something good'
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The Farmland Foods plant in Albert Lea burned down nearly two years ago, putting 500 people out of work. Not much has been done with the gutted plant since then. But now the city is negotiating with a new pork processor, which could bring in 2,000 jobs. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
It's been almost two years since fire claimed the Farmland Foods plant. The blaze gutted the building and left roughly 500 workers without jobs. The city hasn't had much luck luring new business. But now there's hope on the horizon in the form of a brand new state-of-the-art hog processing facility. If the plan goes through, Albert Lea could soon return to its meatpacking roots.

Albert Lea, Minn. — The Donut Shop is a favorite in Albert Lea. On any given morning, clusters of men in seed caps sit around sipping coffee and eating sweet breakfast rolls.

Not too long ago, many of the bakery's customers worked across the street at the former Farmland Foods plant. Now the site is filled with rubble. Only a soot-rimmed skeleton of the building remains. The one cheerful sign of life is a border of yellow forsythia.

Melvin Olson chats with two friends. He says he spent more than 30 years working in the plant. Olson says he supports a plan to bring a new pork processor to town.

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Image Melvin Olson

"The town needs jobs -- no doubt about it -- and that one was there for over 100 years," says Olson. "What the heck, we could have another one."

If Olson sounds less than enthusiastic, that's because he is. For nearly a century, Albert Lea and its local economy have been at the mercy of the meat industry. It has not been a smooth ride. Since the 1980s, four different companies owned and operated the plant most recently managed by Farmland Foods. During that period, wages were slashed and jobs were phased out.

Retiree Peter Vanderploeg says he'd be happy to see any employer moving to town. But he thinks city leaders have done a poor job attracting white-collar companies who offer higher salaries.

"I'm thinking they're a little too critical concerning where they build, or what type of building they can put up. They are being dictated exactly what they have to do. That's my feeling," says Vanderploeg.

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Image Mayor Jean Eaton

Albert Lea's newly-elected mayor has had a busy few months in office. Jean Eaton is an energetic redhead, who ran on a campaign pledge to revive the community's sagging business sector. Eaton says it's been a difficult promise to fulfill.

"Ford Motor ended up going to Wisconsin -- Menomonie -- and their reasons were the taxes and Workmen's (sic) Comp. Winnebago was looking at us -- they stayed in Iowa because of that," Eaton says. "Albert Lea offers the same package as many of our competing communities do, but it just seems we have not been able to find a fit."

Eaton and other city leaders are cautiously optimistic Albert Lea's luck is about to turn around. A lot of that depends on convincing Premium Pork LLC to build its corporate headquarters and a major packing plant on the edge of town.

The lead negotiator for Premium Pork is a familiar one. Rick Hoffman is the former head of Seaboard Farms, which at one time owned the Farmland Plant. Seaboard's decision to leave Albert Lea for Oklahoma back in the mid-'90s inspired a Time magazine article on corporate greed. Albert Lea city officials were quoted calling the company's brief tenure "disastrous."

Albert Lea offers the same package as many of our competing communities do, but it just seems we have not been able to find a fit.
- Albert Lea Mayor Jean Eaton

But the Premium Pork deal could provide 2,000 jobs and a payroll worth $100 million.

Mayor Jean Eaton says she's most excited about 300 office jobs that would be part of the new workforce. She says they're just the sort of high-paid employees the town has been hoping for.

Premium Pork officials are in talks with at least two other communities outside of Minnesota. And Eaton says it won't be easy if Albert Lea loses out on another opportunity.

"We're really at a low. I feel we need something to help us jump-start. We have a developer waiting to come into our community, but they're also waiting for something to happen," Eaton says. "I think we're on the verge of so much good happening. I'm always optimistic, but I'm hopeful too that this can be a jump-start if we're chosen."

Slightly more than 3.5 percent of Minnesota's economy depends on food manufacturing. It's always played a key role in Albert Lea. But like other out-state towns, Albert Lea has become increasingly dependent on the medical sector.

A Mayo-run hospital is now the town's largest employer. But if Premium Pork does come to town, in a matter of years it could become the top employer. And an influx of workers could halt declining enrollment in the public school system, and stabilize the population.

Albert Lea's mayor and city council hope to hear from the company in the coming weeks.

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