As officials from around the state gather today in St. Charles to consider the calamity that befell the town's largest private employer last week, it's not a stretch to say the community's future hangs in the balance.

On April 17, a massive blaze laid waste to North Star Foods and forced the evacuation of the Winona County community's 3,561 residents. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the fire destroyed a cornerstone of the community.

Almost all of the roughly 250 people who worked at the meat-processing plant live in St. Charles or nearby. They spend their paychecks at places like Mike's Food Center and the nearby Ace Hardware. The plant represents 5 percent of St. Charles' property-tax levy and is one of its biggest customers for city services. The plant's local owners, Brad Arndt and Pat Thesing, are also prime examples of the solid, good-hearted citizens on whom so many small communities depend. In St. Charles, if you need a donation for youth sports jerseys or a school fundraiser, North Star's leaders have long been the go-to guys.

Clearly, it is crucial to St. Charles that the plant remain in the community. But whether a new North Star Foods will rise from the ashes in St. Charles remains a question.

Arndt and Thesing have signaled intentions to rebuild. About all that's certain is that a new plant wouldn't be built on the site of the old plant's charred remains. As they sort through the wreckage and work with insurance carriers, Arndt and Thesing have the right as business owners to consider all options, including other locations.

St. Charles Mayor Bill Spitzer, whom Arndt praised for his leadership during the evacuation, also deserves credit for his proactive steps to keep North Star Foods in town. Spitzer and his team spearheaded today's City Hall summit, gathering a group with deep expertise in the state and federal resources that could assist the business. The group is expected to include state Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing; Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Wabasha; a state economic development expert; the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, as well as representatives from U.S. Rep. Tim Walz's office.

Fortunately, it appears that there's wide support for rebuilding in St. Charles. There's also a wide range of state and federal options -- the JOBZ program, federal grants and low-interest loans, and newly available economic stimulus dollars -- that could help rebuild and improve the plant's operations with new technology and additional worker training. "What better economic stimulus package can there be ... than to get back the 250 jobs we had on Friday that we don't have on Monday?'' Spitzer asked.

The city's prompt leadership in securing economic aid is one solid business reason to rebuild in St. Charles. The town's workforce is another; many workers have been with the plant for two decades or more. Finally, Arndt's and Thesing's long record of good citizenship also argues in favor of maintaining their ties to the community. North Star Foods has been part of St. Charles since 1971. We hope the owners will decide that staying in town is not only doing right for St. Charles, but doing good for their business.