Small-town manufacturers in the state’s west-central region are helping fuel low unemployment.
LOWRY, Minn. – On a mild August morning in this town of 300 people in west-central Minnesota, workers at Lowry Manufacturing Co. prepared two gray receiving bins for shipment — one to Iowa, the other to Illinois.
The bins stood on a public street between two of the company’s buildings — an arrangement with the city that underscores the importance of large employers in small towns.
“The community has been really good to us,” said Nicole Klimek, owner of the 30-employee company which makes products to load and mix grain, feed and other agricultural products.
Klimek, an accountant who grew up on a farm near Evansville 20 miles northwest of Lowry, spent a year talking with the former owner of Lowry Manufacturing Co., which was founded in 1973, before agreeing to buy the plant — deciding that her business future was here, in a hamlet off the beaten path along state Hwy. 55.
As Minnesota continues to climb out of the recession, manufacturers in this region have been good to their communities, too. They’re doing their part to help fuel low unemployment and economic growth that has outpaced many other parts of the state.
In a report issued last fall, the Federal Reserve concluded that job growth in a nine-county region in this part of the state had gone “above and beyond the recession’s downturn.” More broadly, over two decades starting in 1990, the manufacturing base in those counties — Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Traverse and Wilkin — increased 53 percent compared with a national decline of 33 percent, according to the report.
About 30 manufacturers in this region have at least 100 employees, according to one survey, while several others have smaller work forces. Some of the largest, such as 3M, are located in larger cities like Alexandria and Fergus Falls. Many others, however, operate in towns of 500 people or fewer.
For instance, Carlos, a Douglas County village of 200 people just north of Alexandria, is home to Brenton, a maker of packaging lines, and Contech Engineered Solutions, which builds bridges, retaining walls and other structures related to water management. Miltona, a town of 400 people a few miles north of Carlos, has Enzymology Research Center Inc., which makes dietary supplements.
Some of the companies are tied to agriculture, while others were started by entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on the local culture, making them good fits for the area. (Brenton was founded, initially, to build cable cars that could carry cabin owners up and down steep lakeshore banks.)
Affinity for the region has also played a role in their staying power, said Greg Wagner, an economic developer for West Central Initiative, a community foundation in Fergus Falls. “That sense of community plays a big role.”
Mark Suchy, the vice president for sales at Massmann Automation Designs, a packaging line company in Villard, agrees, saying the company has no plans to move despite its size: It employs nearly 150 in a town of 250.
“It’s not even in the cards,” he said. “There have been times when buildings in Alexandria have become available, but it would just involve too much disruption. And thinking about a move to the [Twin Cities]: Your cost of manufacturing goes up, property goes up, you lose 75 percent of your workforce.”
Gregg Aamot is a former Associated Press reporter and author of “The New Minnesotans: Stories of Immigrants and Refugees.” He is a journalism and English instructor at Ridgewater College and Normandale Community College.