MASON CITY, Iowa — Ron Prestage came to town in March sporting a mustache and bright red tie, promising 1,800 jobs if Mason City would subsidize a new slaughterhouse on the south side of town.
At first it looked like a slam dunk. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad showed up with Prestage for the announcement on March 21, and city councilors voted 6-0 to hammer out a deal. But two months later, the project was dead and Prestage was run out of town by a furious opposition.
"It just wasn't a good fit for us," said John Lee, one of two council members who flipped his vote at a decisive meeting last month that doomed the project. "There weren't enough people in favor of it to overcome the risks."
A handful of Midwestern towns have taken a look at meatpacking plant proposals and decided against them in recent months, revealing a growing resistance in the heart of farm country to the realities of industrial agriculture.
The pork industry's grand dream is to unlock the Chinese market and ship more pork to Asia. If that is to happen on a substantive scale, the Corn Belt will need more meatpacking plants, and more confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, where the vast majority of pigs are raised. But it's getting to be a tougher sell.
In Nickerson, Neb., the village council voted 6-0 earlier this year against a chicken processing plant aimed at serving Asian markets. A western Nebraska town, Scottsbluff, quashed plans for a beef-packing plant backed by a South Korean firm. Towns in California and Texas also recently turned down projects.
None of those proposed plants were as large as the one Prestage wanted to build in Mason City. His would have killed up to 20,000 hogs each day, about 6 million a year, and cost $240 million to build.
Set just off Interstate 35 about halfway between Twin Cities and Des Moines, Mason City is well-positioned for new industry and has invested in water treatment and sewage capacity to attract it. The collapse of the Prestage project, however, prompted state economic development officials to warn that businesses might think twice about trying to build there.
"I think it's fair to say we're worried about our potential for future projects," said Robin Anderson, president of the Mason City Chamber of Commerce, which supported the plant.
Jobs, race and value
Supporters of the project in Mason City made a straightforward economic argument: The city of 27,000 loses about 100 people each year, industry in town has dwindled and the town needs a boost. The regional hospital is the largest employer and the shopping mall downtown is in receivership, with one anchor tenant shuttered and half its storefronts empty. The addition of 1,800 jobs would have rippled through the local economy.
"How do you miss the boat on an economic engine?" said Rick Mathes, a real estate agent, landlord and leading supporter of the project. "It could have been a labor anchor, labor magnet."
He said Mason City has always had a group of people who object to anything new, and it was this propensity to resist change that undid the Prestage pork plant. An element of racism against immigrants and "pot-stirring" by activists from Des Moines helped fuel the fire, he said.
Other Mason City residents worried the plant would lead to a proliferation of smelly CAFOs nearby and that schools and social services wouldn't be able to handle the influx of workers. Opponents argued that not all jobs should be welcomed with open arms, even in a town that has been gradually losing population for decades.
"It's not just about jobs, it's about value," said Nate Gann, a pastor in Mason City who grew up in St. Joseph, Mo., a meatpacking town.
Jobs at the plant would have paid $13 per hour, hardly a robust living even in Mason City. Since unemployment in Cerro Gordo County is already 3.5 percent — close to full employment — most of the workers would have been transplants, and because turnover at meatpacking plants is as high as 40 percent, they would have been to some extent a transient group.
Concern in the community about the social cost of the plant — some of it racially tinged, since many meatpacking workers in Iowa are immigrants — was seized upon by Prestage, a veterinarian from North Carolina, who accused the citizens of Mason City of "thinly veiled racism" and said activist "kooks" from Des Moines helped torpedo the project.
"Racism is alive and well in Mason City and northern Iowa," he told a local radio station after the City Council decided not to help.
Prestage could not be reached for comment. He told the Des Moines Register earlier this month he is looking for other sites in Iowa for the plant but hasn't publicly made a new proposal.
Prestage's charge of racism has upset many in Mason City, especially since none of the proponents of the project, including Branstad, refuted it.
"Is that what fueled our dissent?" said Barb MacGregor, a leader of the opposition. "No way. We would embrace diversity."
To MacGregor, Mason City is a proud Midwestern town with culture and art, where people read books and play musical instruments. It's the hometown of composer Meredith Willson and inspiration for his most famous work, the musical "The Music Man." It's also the site of the world's only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel and home to a collection of Prairie School homes in a leafy neighborhood along one of the city's seven streams.
Mason City doesn't want — or need — to be a meatpacking town, she said. "It's really an unusual small town," said MacGregor. "We have a lot to offer, and a lot to lose."
And that rhymes with P
It was bound to happen, and at a public meeting in May, it finally did. Someone invoked "The Music Man."
Tim LaPointe, a lawyer with his own practice in Mason City, stepped up to the podium, and, with apologies to Willson, echoed Prof. Harold Hill elucidating the risks to the community of pool (as opposed to billiards).
"One, two, three, four, CAFOs in the corners. CAFOs that mark the difference between a clean city, and one as dirty as a bum, with a capital B and that rhymes with P, and that stands for Prestage," he said. "Seriously, we've got trouble."
A few days after the meeting where the council failed to approve a $15 million property tax subsidy for the project, John Paul Meyer moved back home to Mason City from Prescott, Ariz. Like others in Mason City, Meyer, a 30-year-old cook, said he's not categorically opposed to a meatpacking plant, though he doesn't see the need for it to be subsidized.
He believes it is a sign of strength for the town to be able to say no to Prestage. Quality of life is wonderful in Mason City, he said, and affordable.
"I've been everywhere," he said. "You don't know how good you have it, or how good your kids have it."
He found an apartment that's twice as big as his home in Arizona, for half the cost. He dropped off resumés on a Wednesday and had three interviews lined up by the following Monday. He's not worried about the city's future.
"It's good to be able to pass on a project," he said. "I think we're way more prudent, and a little bit wiser about things."
Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz