Together we can make a difference
Date June 02, 2005
Section(s) Columnists
By Brian Sims  
Many of you that know me know that I came from a small town in Arkansas and the Air Force brought me to Iowa some 15 years ago. What most of you don’t know are the circumstances that brought me to this great city I now call home.

My boyhood town of Trumann, Ark., was a town similar to Newton. Trumann was a small rural manufacturing town of approximately 6,000 people. In 1900, the Singer Sewing Machine Company bought timber land and railroad property in the area that soon became known as Trumann. The industry brought jobs and an economic boon. In 1911, the Singer plant employed 600 people. By the mid 70s, the Singer plant employed 2,000 people in a town of 5,600. There were two other small manufacturers in town, but nothing rivaled the wages Singer paid.

MANY TIMES other manufacturers tried to come into town, but the Singer Corporation controlled the city council, and each time a move into Trumann by another competitor was blocked. Then in 1981, without notice, the Singer Corporation shut down and moved out of town. With most of the jobs in “one basket,” the town was economically devastated. There was an increase in illegal drugs, crime and domestic violence. By 1983, Trumann’s economy accounted for only 600 jobs. My grandfather, who was a local small business man, also suffered the effects. The profits he once realized shrunk to almost nothing. People began to move out of the area. I was one of those that had to leave to find economic prosperity and thus began a 20-year Air Force career.

CONSIDER MCDOWELL County, W. Va. For decades McDowell County prospered by supplying the coal that fired the nation’s steel mills. Mining jobs were abundant, accounting for half of all jobs in the county. Mining wages were attractive, paying an average of $80,000 in today’s dollars. Most young people, rather than finishing high school, became miners (more than half of those over age 25 in 1980 were high school dropouts). Mining companies dominated the county, owning most of the property.

Two developments in the early 1980s hurt West Virginia’s coal industry. First, the value of the dollar rose relative to foreign currencies, so American steel became more expensive overseas and foreign steel became cheaper here. Consequently, steel imports rose substantially, reducing the demand for U.S. steel and the coal used to make it. Second, more stringent pollution controls reduced the demand for the kind of coal mined in McDowell County. As a result, many coal mines shut down, putting more miners out of work. By 1983, the county’s unemployment rate topped 40 percent.

THE COUNTY tried to attract new industry — even a nuclear waste dump — but met with little success. The poor roads and bridges and a labor force trained only for mining scared off potential employers. Between 1980 and 2000, mining jobs in the county fell from 7,200 to only 700, while all private-sector jobs dropped by more than half. As jobs disappeared, people left. County population dropped from about 50,000 in 1980 to 29,000 in 2000. The unemployment rate in 2001 was still nearly triple the national average and double the state average. In short, the county had all its eggs in one basket — mining — but that basket fell, and the county has not recovered (source: McEachern, William A., 2003. Macroeconomics — A Contemporary Introduction. South-Western, Mason, Ohio).

ALL IS NOT lost! After I moved from Trumann, in 1983 some local businessmen took a proposal to the Trumann City Council. The council was asked to buy the entire Singer facility (82 acres of land and 26 acres of buildings) for the purpose of establishing an industrial park. The city decided it would purchase undeveloped land and establish their own industrial park. In the meantime, several business leaders in the community made an offer to the Singer Corporation to buy the old Singer facility. Singer accepted. With that purchase the owners soon lured different industry into the facilities. One was Arbor products, which employed 200 employees. Other manufacturers employed 30 to 50 people. The City of Trumann also followed through with their purchase of land for an industrial park. The city was effective in luring more manufacturers into Trumann. Most of these manufacturers employed 50 to 100 people.

Today, there are approximately 11 manufacturers in this small town of 7,000 people for approximately 1,500 manufacturing jobs. The City of Trumann has rebounded from the shock of 25 years ago, but it took the inspiration of local talented leaders (Source: Trumann that was and Trumann that is. By local historian Georgia Moore).

NEWTON IS at a crossroad! Does Newton stand by and have a wait-and-see attitude concerning Maytag? Do we silently hope the proposed racetrack brings us economic relief? I don’t believe this is wise. Now is the time for our civic, business and union leaders to step up to the plate, come together, form partnerships and alliances for the good of Newton. We have some of the brightest people that Iowa has to offer, and they should be encouraged to take a leadership role within our community. No one person has all the answers, and I am only one person. But, I do believe, now more than ever, we need bright, energetic people with strong leadership abilities to facilitate, inspire and keep us focused toward a common goal.

ECONOMIC development does not happen overnight, as with Trumann, it can take years. Will Newton become another Trumann, Ark., or a McDowell County, W. Va.? I hope not. But I, for one, do not want to witness another economic and social collapse of a city. Encourage your friends and neighbors to get involved and become part of the solution. Together we can make a difference.

Brian Sims is director of Jasper County Human Resources


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