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Albert Lea optimistic about jobs picture
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The burned-out Farmland Foods plant stood in downtown Albert Lea for nearly three years, a symbol of the town's economic problems. Now the city is rebounding. (MPR file photo)
Three years ago a fire ripped through the Farmland Foods plant in Albert Lea. The blaze claimed the sprawling brick building, and left about 500 people without jobs. Since then, Albert Lea has struggled to regain its economic footing and attract new businesses to town. Now some city leaders say it's likely they'll be able to replace all of those lost jobs.

Albert Lea, Minn. — When the Farmland Foods plant burned to the ground, it closed a chapter in Albert Lea's history. For decades, the town was synonymous with meatpacking. It was a huge part of the local identity. And when it became clear the fire damage was too extensive to rebuild, Albert Lea was forced to reinvent itself.

Mayor Jean Eaton says it wasn't an easy process, and there were plenty of disappointments along the way.

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Image The site today

"About a year ago, I have to say, it was a sad place in Albert Lea. We had been rejected by Ford and Premium Pork and Winnebago," Eaton recalls. "We felt like the big losers, and it was very depressing time for many of us in Albert Lea, who felt like, 'Why not us?'" Eaton is a natural optimist who dresses in bright colors and always seems to have a smile on her face. She says she was determined to see Albert Lea turn around.

So when Gov. Pawlenty proposed his JOBZ program, Albert Lea was one of the first communities in line. JOBZ encourages businesses to locate in specific outstate areas. In return, those business can operate for 12 years tax-free.

Jean Eaton says thanks to JOBZ, there are already six new businesses that hope to expand in Albert Lea. She says that's just the beginning. The city can continue applying for new business developments until all the acres in its designated zone are taken.

"We'll probably have 500 jobs by the time we're done, which is really what we lost with Farmland," Eaton says. "That's my hope with that -- not just with the six we're looking at, but you have to look at the other ones that will filter out. It's a good time to be in Albert Lea."

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Image Mayor Jean Eaton

Not far from Eaton's downtown office is one of Albert Lea's new businesses. MF Technology is a Japanese company that manufactures house frames. The company produces specially-designed metal brackets that replace nails. That way, workers can pop together pieces of wood using only the brackets. They say it's a more cost efficient way to build a house frame.

Claire Vermendahl gives a tour of the new setup. His company is right next door. Vermendahl's expertise is in laminated wood, a related field. He convinced the new business owners to come to Albert Lea. In fact, his staff of 95 employees will help run the facility too.

Inside the new plant sits about $2 million worth of equipment. It's a chalky green color and stretches from one end of the building to the other.

"They estimate that this equipment will cut the framework for one 2,000-square-foot home in about three and a half hours, with three people. They just basically watch the machinery," says Vermendahl. "One will set the material up, one will make sure the machines are working right, and somebody will stack the pieces on the other end."

Vermendahl says his Japanese colleagues liked Albert Lea's proximity to Interstate highways 35 and 90. And he says the JOBZ program helped seal the deal.

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Image Claire Vermendahl

That's was the same case with Quality Pork Processors, which hopes to begin construction in September on a new plant that will employ at least 200 people.

Quality Pork works exclusively for Hormel, providing much of the labor at the company's flagship plant in Austin. Quality Pork president Kelly Wadding says they need more room.

"We do not have the capacity to do the volume that Hormel wants, so they send to other plants at this time. It just feels like there would be an advantage to keep the product in this area, because a lot of it is shipped through the Austin plant. We looked at a lot of sites locally, and decided on Albert Lea," says Wadding.

Wadding says he scouted at least two locations across the border in Iowa, but says JOBZ made Albert Lea just as competitive. It also helped that Wadding has long ties to Albert Lea. He graduated from the local high school. And he started his career in meatpacking working on the floor of the Albert Lea plant, back when it was owned by Wilson's.

Albert Lea is likely to get a new meatpacking plant out on the edge of town in the industrial park. That means prime real estate will open up downtown, where the old Farmland site is located. City officials hope they can transform the giant mud piles and weeds that decorate the old Farmland site into something that fits Albert Lea's new identity.

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