Community leaders react to announcement

Community leaders react to announcement
 
Date May 10, 2006
Section(s) Local News
Brief  
 
By ANDY KARR

NDN Staff Writer

Community leaders and officials were still absorbing the news this morning that Maytag, after 113 years of operating in Newton, would close its doors here for good in 2007.

The news comes nearly six weeks after Maytag was purchased by Whirlpool in a $2.7 billion deal. While not entirely unexpected, Whirlpool’s announcement this morning left community leaders with a sense of sadness and disappointment, but also with feelings of optimism that the entire community could pull together.

“We’re certainly very, very sorry to hear that news, and we’re absorbing it here at city hall,” Chief of Police and Interim City Administrator Tom Wardlow said. “It’s a hard mix with all of the positive things that are happening in the city. This is just a negative we’re going to deal with and address.”

Wardlow wasn’t certain this morning how that loss would affect Newton’s tax base.

“We’re just absorbing this now,” he said. “We’ll be reviewing it.”

AFTER SEVERAL LEAN budget years, Newton had enjoyed many positive developments in 2006 with the passage of a 1 cent local option sales tax, the construction of the Iowa Speedway, RAGBRAI selecting Newton as an overnight stop, the announcement of a proposed hotel/waterpark near the speedway and proposed biodiesel plant in Jasper County. Today at a press conference, Gov. Tom Vilsack announced that the state would contribute $10 million to the community to use for economic development.

That could help cushion the loss of Whirlpool, but even that good news couldn’t completely alleviate the sting of losing the community’s largest employer.

State Sen. Dennis Black blasted Whirlpool’s decision.

“A 113-year-old manufacturing institution of worldwide acclaim, and the livelihood of over five generations, has been severed from the body of Iowa. The industries headquartered in this nation have become the puppets of Wall Street greed, with the ‘bottom line’ having become more important than the lives of workers, their families and their communities.”

CAROL CLEMMENS, executive officer of Newton board of REALTORS, said it’s still too soon to know how the announcement will impact the housing market in Newton.

“We’ve had this hanging over our heads so long, it’s hard to know what’s going to happen,” she said, noting that housing sales so far have remained stable compared to a year ago. Whirlpool has said it would create about 1,500 new positions in other locations, possibly offering some of those positions to Newton employees. Such a draw could pull population from the area and could cause an increased number of homes to hit the market. But Clemmens emphasized it’s still too early to know what will happen.

Newton school district Superintendent Steve McDermott felt for the families of workers.

“Our hearts go out to the families who are impacted by this recent news,” he said. “We’ll keep all those families and our neighbors in our prayers. We’ll continue to do our best to support the children and the families in the community here at school. We’re just willing to do whatever we can do to help. It’s just a sad time right now.”

While the first reaction of many was of disappointment and sadness, some began showing a sense of optimism already this morning.

NEWTON DEVELOPMENT Corporation Executive Director Kim Didier expressed optimism in Newton’s ability to overcome the loss of its largest employer.

“Clearly we’re disappointed. There have been a lot of people locally and at the state level … making every effort to show Whirlpool what we believe is still a very positive business climate in Iowa,” Didier said. “You work through the disappointment in about an hour and then you start implementing your plan. I thank every effort on everyone’s part was made. I don’t think there was one stone left unturned in that regard.”

Anticipating the possibility of losing Whirlpool, Didier said NDC already has been working on a three-pronged approach to keep Newton strong.

First and foremost, she said, NDC will focus on retaining talented workers in the community.

“Our most valuable asset in this transition has been our people,” Didier said. “That’s why we have been working on initiatives like the Newton Promise.”

NDC’s Newton Promise plan, which would grant college scholarships to all Newton High School graduates, has been touted as a way to retain population and attract new people to the community. In the wake of Whirlpool’s announcement, Didier said NDC would step up their efforts to get that program implemented.

TWO OTHER AREAS NDC will focus on are investments in economic development and using the physical structures Whirlpool will leave behind to lure new employers to the area. Maytag‘s former corporate headquarters and the production plant could be attractive locations for other companies to invest in.

“We want to work very closely with Whirlpool to market those facilities and turn them as quickly as possible,” she said.

Newton’s Community Development Director Bryan Friedman emphasized all the positive things already happening in the community and the traits that will help Newton overcome the loss of Whirlpool and Maytag.

“The story of Newton’s resurgence is already being written,” he said in a statement. “The fundamentals of what made Maytag a success here for over 100 years are not changed by a global corporate decision. We have a skilled, educated, innovative workforce, great transportation access and an outstanding quality of life. Those things position Newton very well for success in a growing metro area.”

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