With the ORASCOM project winding down and the Iowa Fertilizer Company set to start full operations, I felt this was a now or never story. Articles have been written about the tax breaks and details of the construction. Google is your friend if you’d like to know more about these topics. The aspect of the project, one of the largest construction projects in Iowa history, no one is talking about is the effects of this project on communities around it. In the interests of full disclosure, I worked on the project, but will give nor have any inside information. I do my job and feel it’s better they pay a local than someone from out of state. Many good people worked there and have pumped millions of dollars into what was basically a stagnant local economy. The goal of this piece is to show mismanagement by our city, county, and state and their lack of foresight hurt southeastern Iowa.
The focus of this article is going to be Burlington. It’s where I live and where the majority of the problems have occurred. The Greater Burlington Micropolitan area has been a top 20 micropolitan area according to siteselection.com for a few years running. A micropolitan area is a recognized statistical region of cities, and towns that are between 10,000 and 50,000 residents. The Burlington area has about 40,000 residents.
2016 and continuing into 2017 has been and continues to be a particularly horrible time for Burlington in terms of crime. Just this week, we had a shootout between 2 suspects with 40-50 rounds fired. One of the weapons was an AK-47 style weapon according to witnesses. The amount of shootings in Burlington has been sky high and has been rising for the last few years. As a matter of fact here is a list of the shootings that have happened lately. Scroll through and you can see that based off the dates we have had a ridiculous amount of violence for such a small town. Being that we are a small community, not many resources exist to document this sort of thing.
It used to be that we would have maybe a shooting a year. Maybe two in a particularly bad year. Something has changed over the last four years though. That something is the Iowa Fertilizer project. I don’t claim that this project is the root cause of our crime and I recognize the economic benefits that this area has received and will continue to receive. Because of this project, we have been able to invest in fixing up our downtown area. It looks great these days. I wish they had spent the funds in ways that would’ve helped the average citizen, but that’s what the city chose and it does look pretty great.
So if the problem isn’t the fertilizer plant, then it must be those “Chicago people”. We all know what those words mean. Don’t be coy. While it may be true that many of the people that are involved in our shootings aren’t born and bred Burlington natives, it’s wrong to assume that the crime in our city is driven by “those people”. Blaming them reeks of whisper racism and good old fashioned class warfare. For example here is a video someone made of deporting all Chicagoans. The video depicts “deportation” as basically blowing up all of our notable low income housing.
So if the root cause of the violence isn’t just the fertilizer plant and/or “Chicagoans” what is it? Well as study after study shows, crime and poverty are inexorably linked. After all those “Chicagoans” have been moving here for at least a couple decades and crime stayed pretty steady. The timing of our crime uptick has correlated with the arrival of a massive influx of workers from all over the world working on the fertilizer plant project. Why can’t we just blame those two factors and “take back our town”?
It’s because we aren’t looking at the root cause which is poverty. Burlington is one of the cities that had its manufacturing jobs hollowed out by the passage NAFTA. As America has moved from a manufacturing economy to a service economy so too has Burlington. We have lost many of our good paying jobs and replaced them with low paying chain restaurants and stores. Gone is Exide. General Electric almost left, forced concessions from various levels of government and it’s workers to stay, expanded a bit, and now is selling the plant leaving workers to wonder what the fate of their jobs will be. Case, one of the few good paying blue collar employers, has had fluctuating employment for decades and appears to employ about 600 people today.
In recent years fast food and chain stores have become the major face of our local economy. We bribed not only the Fertilizer plant and its 220 jobs to come here, we did the same to lure another 120 decent paying jobs here. The problem is, how many of those jobs are going to go to locals? Are we trained for these jobs? Did they work with our local community to provide the education they need for those new jobs? Or are they going to import people with skills and experience? When it comes to a plant that uses as much natural gas as a fertilizer plant does, you HAVE to have skilled people running the equipment. You don’t want the plant to explosively fail.
While we have created about 350 new jobs, at massive taxpayer expense, that has been offset by 10 new low wage businesses opening within the same time frame. That does little to help the ratio of well paying jobs to poverty level jobs. According to the United Way’s ALICE statistics, in 2014 25% of our county was at poverty level. An additional 20% fell under their Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed standards. So that means that in Des Moines County, about 45% of the population is either in poverty, or near poverty.
With the fertilizer project and the thousands of well paid workers it attracted from the world over, our rent became sky-high in a very short time frame. It used to be that a decent one bedroom apartment in Burlington cost about $300-$400 a month. Sometimes less. We enjoyed rent well below the national average. There was an equilibrium to this area. Sure you wouldn’t live big, but you could make ends meet. Now our rent almost doubled and our local residents can’t keep up. As a matter of fact, move over Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Southeast Iowa had the most expensive rent in the state in 2014. While I expect that cost of living will drop back down once the project is done, the damage is done and it will never be where it was again. It’s manifesting peoples desperation to keep afloat by drug trade related violence that is frighteningly high.
Our county board of supervisors has turned down two separate proposals for a minimum wage increase and face no real community outcry for it to happen. Not that it mattered anyhow. The state government overrode any local minimum wage increases this session. Showing that the Republicans only care about local control when it suits their business first ideology. If it hurts their donors, they will torpedo anything.
We must recognize that those manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back at the numbers we need to have a healthy community. We need a minimum wage increase. We also need to look at other ways to put money back into the pockets of our workers. So that a single mother doesn’t need to work 2 or 3 jobs just to keep afloat. Or that if you have a “good job”, generally defined by locals as something that pays above $12 an hour, you still don’t also need to sell Sentsy or some other pyramid scheme nonsense in an attempt to get ahead. Putting money in workers pockets will undercut the poverty and lack of options that makes selling drugs a viable income stream for people who are just trying to make it.