Round Lake, Minnesota: An example of where the job growth should be

All photos taken in August 2011

When you hear of creating jobs, what comes to mind? A better living for yourself and your family? Having enough money to travel to the places you want to? Paying down or even paying off your debts? What about economic growth for the region you are living in? All of these factors are foremost on our minds, especially since we are still living in the midst of a slow economic recovery caused by the collapse of Wall Street that started at the end of 2007 and accelerated in 2008, reaching rock bottom by the beginning of 2009.

But when I think of job growth, I think of Round Lake, Minnesota and the Sather’s Candy Company. Created by John Sather in 1936, the company produced roasted nuts and other candies, but was primarily a rebagging business- buying ship loads of candies, cookies and the like in bulk loads, and rebagging them to be sold in stores throughout the midwest. It was the primary innovator of the pegboard, where small-packaged candy could be hung in rows and large amounts. It created a trucking company to ship these goods to the stores throughout southern Minnesota and beyond, one of the largest in the region. And an outlet store was added in the 1960s, allowing children to stop there to buy their favorite candy, whether it was a package of gum balls, jelley beans, marshmallow corn, or the like.  The company operated as a single entity for 60 years, before changing hands three times- first being bought by Favorite Brands in 1996, which was later bought by Nabisco in 1999, which later folded into the Kraft conglomerate by Philip-Morris a year later. Together with Farley’s incorporated, Sathers was spun off to create its own company Farley and Sather’s in 2002. With its headquarters in Round Lake, one would think that the company would keep its home in a place where it was first created, and that people would be accustomed to.

The former Sather’s Outlet Store on Main Street

But then, 2010 came and with that, Black January. One evening, at the end of the second shift, all packaging personnel were summoned to a town hall style meeting- to receive the bad news. All packaging and trucking services would be relocated to Chatanooga, Tennessee, and the Round Lake plant was going to downsize. The moment people received the news, they cried. Most of them were 5-10 years away from retirement, have made a home in Round Lake for 30 years, and allowed their children to grow up, going to school in Round Lake and neighboring Worthington. There was some confusion as to what would happen with their careers, for many came out of high school and into the company, hoping to make a living there, and contribute to their community. The lights were going out and there was no exit to be found…..

One year later, I visited the Sather’s company for the first time in two years. I never worked there, but my father (now 58 years of age) worked there for nearly 15 years, as a robotics technician in the packaging department. He was one of many who received that dreadful pink slip in January 2010, but not before showing me and my wife and daughter the facility during our visit in the summer of 2009. Everything was bustling with activity as the people were busying themselves with packaging, having a great time. The working conditions were great. People made friends and invited them to a beer at the local pub or to a dinner at their houses a couple blocks away.  Everyone was in good spirits, as if nothing was ever going to be in the way.

Parking lot with overgrowth, one of the signs of a dying company.

But not this day. upon entering the company, one can see its deserted and even desolate state. Once filled with cars 24/7, the parking lot was being run over by overgrowth- weeds and vegetation. Machines that were bought brand new a few years earlier were waiting to be hauled to their final destination- a recycling center in Worthington to be sold for scrap metal. The loading docks are empty, even though there was talk of renting the space out to another local trucking business willing to establish its base.  The paint on the building was the same as in year’s past, but it was showing its wear and tear; its dreariness. While the Sather’s headquarters was still in operation, only a skeleton of the crew remained with no one around to talk to, finding out what has become of the company and of Round Lake. But perhaps one does not need an explanation for Main Street represented a ghost town. The outlet store closed down the same time the layoffs took place, but other businesses suffered as well. The only healthy business one can find in the town of 450 people was a gas station, the only bar in town and the grain elevator. Surprisingly the people still reside in town, for the nearest town with the employment opportunities, Worthington, with over 11,000 inhabitants, was only five miles away- a 10-15 minute commute pending on job and weather. Without that life support, Round Lake would have ceased to exist within a matter of a year of the layoffs.

Packaging machines waiting to be scrapped
The handful of business that still survive in Round Lake

How does this story fit the real picture of the job situation. Realistically, it is one that was in the making for the years leading up to the collapse of the US economy, taking every other country into the worst recession since the 1929 crash. Years of wrecklessness and uneven growth (starting in 2002) combined with lack of regulations resulted in an economy that took off like a runaway bus with no breaks, stopping eventually into a wall without a clue as to finding a way to at least slow it down or find a nice landing cushion.  The increased unemployment resulted in companies finding optimal ways of saving money, even at the expense of people who have worked there for many years.  While we have found constructive ways to retrain those affected by the layoffs, through educational programs at colleges and universities or through on-the-job training at another company, we still have not paid attention to the real job growth. More jobs are being developed in big cities than those in rural areas like Round Lake, while at the same time, we have fewer small businesses and too many large corporations willing to buy up all the assets of other businesses and relocate them to their headquarters, as a way of micromanaging them. End result: emigration to bigger cities where crime and pollution are rampant, while rural areas are dying off, with only a handful of young people left to salvage what is left of the population.

While Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been campaigning to promise more jobs, the reality to the situation is that neither one can get it done without changing the way we think about jobs and establishing businesses. While Obama implores patience (and he is right about that, as unemployment has broken the psychological 8% barrier and is sitting at 7.9%, a first in four years), what happens if the patience of many unemployed persons come to an end and decide to uproot everything and move elsewhere? Voting for Romney will not be the answer either. He promises 12 million new jobs by 2016 if elected, but for whom. Definitely not the 47% of Americans he wrote off because they are dependent on social welfare. They also want to work and do not want to be unemployed forever. And taking jobs from other countries to establish them in the States will not do, for the people there are suffering just as much (think of the European debt crisis and how it is affecting even the richer EU states).

Vacant space in the docking section: waiting for someone to fill it in and start a business.

So what is the plan? One should consider visiting the rural areas and talking to the people. Visit small towns like Round Lake and ask them not what one can do for the community but what the community was like in the past. While many people claim to not have enough knowledge of history, it definitely serves as a tool, as a way of looking back at the good times of the past and seeing if the past can be implemented into the present to jumpstart the communities for the future. One should look at ways to encourage businesses to develop in local communities. It goes beyond rebuilding business districts as many have done already. That is only changing the facade. What is needed is the redevelopment of the small hometown feeling where people have a simple job, a simple family and a simple life, fostering growth and encouraging children to grow up locally and have families of their own, helping others in need, and ensuring the businesses that start in small towns, stay there. The need for unity and pride is large but when we have it, we can prosper. Jobs will take care of themselves and unemployment will go down further. In the end, with the change in mentality and by not taking the promises of either candidate, we will see many small communities, like Round Lake prosper again. The empty parking lot of Sather’s will be full again with a new business taking over, which will generate local revenue for the businesses along Main Street. Through our own actions, we ourselves can make a difference.

I would like to finish my column with an interesting conversation I had a few weeks ago, which went along the lines of where we would want to live in a few years. Like many of us (and my wife and I are one of them), a big city life for the rest of our lives is not our cup of tea. If there is a place to live, then in a small community surrounded by lots of green where each of us had a simple job and not one in a corporation located in a big city. There is a big difference when you live in a big city and work for a big company in comparison to living in a rural community and working in a small business or teaching in a small school. It goes beyond the landscape (concrete versus green) and what is available for services. It also goes beyond the metality of the people both at work as well as on the street. It is our own personal feeling towards the two. Some are inclined to live in a city, others are inclined to live in a rural area. After visiting Round Lake, I know which one I would prefer if the opportunity opens up….