Construction is wrapping up on Waseca’s gigantic new Birds Eye vegetable processing plant. With a price tag of $250 million footed by the packaged foods company Conagra Brands, and an estimated 120 jobs offered at the new facility, residents will feel the impact of Birds Eye staying in Waseca for years to come.
The new plant under construction out on 360th Avenue, south of the former Quad Graphics building, is a replacement facility for the one on 4th Street Southwest that packages peas and corn.
Conagra’s reason for building the new plant was that parts of the old plant were 80 years old, said Waseca City Manager Lee Mattson. Certain equipment could have been upgraded through a process of retrofitting existing equipment, although for various reasons this option was less practical than simply building a new plant.
Only about 120 full-time employees are slated to be hired at the new plant, compared to at least 160 at the old one, according to Economic Development Coordinator Gary Sandholm. This is due to packaging operations being moved to a plant in Wisconsin, where it will be easier for Conagra to comply with federal food guidelines. Automation at the new plant is also responsible for some of the jobs being taken away.
Seasonal employment, though, should remain roughly the same in the new Birds Eye plant, according to Sandholm.
Although city staff are unaware of Conagra’s exact reasons for choosing Waseca over other towns offering tax abatements in exchange for hosting the new vegetable plant, the implications of their choosing to stay are substantial.
“If they had not invested in Waseca, all the jobs would be going somewhere else,” Mattson said.
Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce President Ann Fitch echoed Mattson.
“We feel very fortunate that Conarga did choose to stay in Waseca,” Fitch said. “They had other options around the nation and they found that the quality of life here for their workers was ideal to continue their operations.”
As an incentive for Conagra to build the new plant in Waseca, both the city and county offered partial property tax abatements, with the county abating 65% of their county taxes for 20 years and the city abating 50% for the same amount of time.
“The City Council didn’t give away the farm, but it made it enticing for them to stay,” Fitch said.
While the city was initially asked to abate 65%, the difference in final abatement was agreed to be spent on an expansion to the water main — from a 12-inch to a 16-inch main for ample water pressure — that the new plant would require.
Beyond serving the Conagra site, expansion of the water main will also help the city of Waseca grow to the west and northwest in the future, among other benefits.
Given that other cities across the country were offering similar incentives, Fitch believes it was the specific qualities of Waseca itself that kept Birds Eye from building elsewhere.
“You can’t find another Waseca somewhere else,” she said.
Birds Eye’s impact
In terms of the new production facility’s impact on the city’s tax capacity, the $250 million valuation is a somewhat misleading figure, as almost all of it comes from the value of the special equipment inside the building, which will not be part of the county’s final valuation. This means that the city will only be able to generate about $70,000 a year for the first 20 years that the plant is operating.
“It will help,” Mattson said. “Everything helps. But it won’t be very noticeable.”
After the tax incentives run out in 20 years, though, the impact on the levy will be felt more strongly.
In terms of lost jobs, Fitch said, there are reasons not to despair, including the fact that Waseca’s workforce has diversified in past decades. When approximately 200 former employees of Quad Graphics were laid off due to that business closing in 2017, for instance — a far more devastating loss than what will occur with Birds Eye — workers were quickly absorbed into other companies in town.
In addition to the quantity of lost jobs, the quality of the job loss will also be different, since job loss at Birds Eye will be more incremental.
Beyond Waseca limits and Conagra’s impact on jobs and the tax base, Fitch emphasized how devastating it would have been for the new Birds Eye plant to be built somewhere else, including one of their options outside of the Midwest.
“They’re a hub for agricultural activity in all of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, and if Conagra had chosen to move, we would have seen a small collapse in our agricultural economy that would have devastated farmers for years,” Fitch said. “This is helping to solidify the agricultural community in the upper Midwest.”
According to Mattson, there is likely to be activity in the new plant by the first quarter of 2022, as all of next year’s packaging is supposed to occur at the new facility. That means Conagra has slated the old facility’s final operating year for 2021.
While many details are currently being ironed out about the new plant, much remains to be learned regarding the fate of the old facility, which Mattson said could be marketed to an existing company or decommissioned.
“It’s likely they’ll look to sell it, but they’ve been focused on getting their new facility going before they worry about dealing with the old facility,” Mattson said. “There’s a million details with the new one to work with.”
John Hanson was teaching U.S. history when a knock came on his door. It was an autumn day toward the beginning of the 2001-02 school year at Waseca High School. A colleague of Hanson’s who had been watching television before coming into work told him that he needed to turn on the television immediately — something terrible had happened, she told him.
Hanson wheeled in a television to the front of the classroom. He and his students watched. They learned that a plane had just flown into one of the Twin Towers in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan. Minutes later, they watched a second plane crash into the other tower. Later that morning, both towers collapsed.
A history teacher in his 11th year teaching history and government at Waseca High School, Hanson and his students spent the day watching American history.
A teacher’s role when tragedy strikes
In addition to teaching government, political science and U.S. history to seniors and sophomores, Hanson is the department chair of social studies, a position he said “is no great honor, it’s just I’ve been here longer than anybody else.” This fall is his 31st year at Waseca High School and his 36th in education overall. Asked if he’d ever thought about doing something other than teaching for work, he laughed and said “No.”
In certain respects, Hanson is the prototypical high school history teacher. He considers it his job to ask students questions, rather than offering his own opinion — unless the question is whether he prefers dogs or cats (dogs) or which is his favorite football team (Packers).
“I think it is teaching malpractice for me to abuse my position and influence them to my opinions,” Hanson said. “My No. 1 objective is that they have no clue where I stand on issues.”
The best compliment he’s ever gotten from a student — and it’s happened to him numerous times, he said — is when a student once asked him on the last day of school, “When are you gonna tell us what you are?”
“My job is to best help you understand what’s happening and to help you be motivated to better understand,” Hanson said. “An informed, effective citizen that’s a smart consumer of information — that’s what I’d love our kids to be.”
Of course, watching a historic terrorist attack in real time, many teachers could have lost control in front of their students. While Hanson said it’s hard for him to express how terrible and tragic he felt the event was — and still feels it was — he was laser-focused at the time on helping his students process the information that was coming in. That means trying his best not to let his own base emotions cloud his understanding of the event, so as to model thoughtfulness for his students.
Plus, Hanson said, he tends to try to turn tragic events into opportunities to help students understand and connect more to the content he teaches.
“That hat never goes off,” he said.
Ultimately, Waseca High School’s response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Hanson said, became about trying to care for students. That meant gauging if any student in the school had lost a close relative or loved one in the attacks (Hanson is fairly sure no Waseca High School student did), as well as helping them respond in a healthy, productive manner.
In addition to reigning in hopelessness and fear, this also meant encouraging students not to jump to quick conclusions until all the information had been gathered, especially regarding whom to blame for the attacks, to direct rage and retaliation.
These days, Hanson said, it’s hard to convey to students who were not alive at the time of the attacks how terrifying the event was for many Americans.
“It’s a historical event for them. It wasn’t for me,” Hanson said. “I get the emotion of it … when that tower goes down, you have to think how many lives were just lost.”
A community rallying together
If there’s one thing Hanson didn’t learn in the days and weeks after the attacks on 9/11, he said, it’s how members of the Waseca community would support each other in the wake of a tragedy.
“I grew up here,” he said. “What I learned is what I already knew.”
How Waseca responded, Hanson said, was with a great deal of empathy toward one another, though often paired with frustration, wondering how this could have happened in their own country.
According to the Sept. 13, 2001 edition of the Waseca County News, some members of the community reacted with revulsion. Kimberly Johnson, of Waseca, said, “I’m appalled. I’m really disgusted the way people can treat other people.” Linda Shell, of Janesville, also observed the urge for retaliation within her community, having said at the time, “A lot of people think we should really go after them, bomb the heck out of them.”
Others expressed hope for the impossible, as in Theresa Meadows, of Waseca: “You keep hoping that they pull up a big scrap of steel and find thousands of people alive and that they saved them.”
When the victims of tragedy are random, innocent civilians, Hanson said, people can’t help but relate to them. In his view, he said, that’s why Waseca was able to care for each other during that confusing time, as well as why the nation was able to rally together behind what Hanson said was a “young, controversial president … after a very, very contentious election.”
America was able to put aside its differences, he said, and put a higher priority on caring for one another in the midst of tragedy. Despite how politically polarized the country has become, he believes that basic character of the country has not changed.
One of the first things Hanson asks his class on the week of 9/11, when he’s teaching it, is if a terrorist attack like what occurred on 9/11 could happen again. Every single one of them, he said, says, “sure.”
“That’s the hard part,” he said. “You can’t stop everything.
“My purpose in addressing it every year with my seniors is that this is incredibly important,” Hanson continued. ‘It had a huge impact on who we are as Americans, and even the dynamics of the world. And no matter what anniversary it is, it’s important that we quote-on-quote ‘never forget.’”
The Waseca County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution on Sept. 7 to approve the preliminary allocation of more than $3.6 million of federal funding expected through the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA).
With years to spend the money, only half of it having arrived in a first installment in June, and nearly half a million dollars unallocated due to inadequate information on a number of allocation categories, the county is likely to see significant impacts as a result of the ARPA funds. The funds were sent to local governments across the country, as the most recent federal financial response to COVID-19.
Though 10 categories were named for funding by county staff, the biggest were water resources and broadband infrastructure, both of which are slated to receive $1 million, followed by tourism advocacy and resilience, slated to receive $500,000.
The reason this allocation plan was only preliminary, said County Administrator Michael Johnson, was partly that the bureaucratic infrastructure around the ARPA bill, including the way it’s interpreted by local governments, is extremely complicated and requires significant time and planning before money is usually spent. Plus, the county is watching the state government field applications for funding to local municipalities, as the state of Minnesota may be able to partially match funds spent on projects like rural broadband.
“We don’t want to spend more money than we would theoretically have to,” Johnson said.
Perhaps most important, though, he said, is that the county seeks greater buy-in and feedback from the community regarding how the money should be spent. And since the county has until the end of 2024 to spend ARPA funds, there’s really no excuse not to ensure the residents of Waseca County make themselves heard and their priorities understood.
What the preliminary allocation represents, Johnson said, is “a kind of roll-up summary of our high-level thinking of how we should prioritize spending.” While the amounts spent under each category are anticipated by county staff to change over time, he said, the categories themselves are not anticipated to change significantly.
The reason broadband infrastructure and water resources receive so much funding, Johnson noted, is that they are so popular and so necessary within Waseca County. With more than 85% of the county unserved or under-served, in terms of what the state of Minnesota considers “high-speed internet,” and jobs and education rapidly shifting to an increasingly online or online-only setting, there is real desire among residents to invest heavily in its implementation.
Water resources, while perhaps less obvious as an imperative for Waseca County, is in fact hugely significant for an agricultural community consisting of many individual farmers, as well as Conagra’s huge vegetable processing facility, soon to be replaced by a new gigantic $250 million vegetable processing facility.
While Johnson said it’s hard to predict when the money will start being spent — a resurgence of COVID could lead to funds being rapidly allocated toward public health, for example — he predicts it won’t be until at least spring 2022 before “we really see those dollars spent in earnest.”
“You can’t dig fiber in the winter,” he added.
What is most important for Waseca County residents to understand, Johnson said, is that they can and should reach out to their commissioners to give insight into how the $3.6 million in federal funding should be spent. It’s almost impossible for county staff to make decisions as cogently as they would like, he said, without hearing from the public exactly how and where they were affected by the pandemic, and how investment of ARPA funding can help.
“Bottom line is ‘We want to know and hear those things,’” Johnson said. “It’s community money, not county money.”