If, Not When—Aberdeen Candidates Address Possible Northern Beef Packers Restart

The Aberdeen League of Women Voters and the Chamber of Commerce hosted a candidate forum for the upcoming city council and school board election. 67% of the candidates showed up to speak; 0.007% of the residents of Aberdeen showed up to listen.

My opponent in the city council race, incumbent Laure Swanson, was unable to attend, due to a prior commitment. The audience thus enjoyed a half-hour of my answering questions about Aberdeen affairs without anyone to interrupt or offer an alternative viewpoint. I like extemp, but I prefer debate: it’s better for democracy.

Incumbents Brad Olson and Linda Burdette as well as challenger Sherrie Gray participated in the school board candidates’ portion of the show. Challenger Amy J. Scepaniak was elsewhere.

All of us got a question about Northern Beef Packers, the infamous bankrupt poster-child of the EB-5 scandal and South Dakota economic development schemes gone woefully wrong. Moderator Chris Haar asked (from anonymous written questions), “When Northern Beef Packers opens,” are the city (my question) and school district (for Gray, Olson, and Burdette) ready to deal with the demands that operation and its workforce will place on our public resources.

The school board candidates (who spoke after me) all said heck yeah, the Aberdeen school district has a great English as a Second Language program to deal with immigrant children and the newly acquired Coventry insurance call center building to absorb any influx of kids. Dr. Burdette noted that a lot of the workers who work at beef plants (you know, the immigrants Aberdeen recognizes are the primary labor market for South Dakota’s workforce needs) don’t bring their families with them, meaning the impact on the schools may not be as large as we think.

I responded that, sure, we need to be ready with education and translation services, as well as increased road spending to keep up with the heavy traffic Northern Beef Packers would bring to town.

But I took issue with the phrasing of the question. “When” Northern Beef Packers opens? When? Try if. We have promises from NBP’s secretive new owners that oh, yes, the plant will open this year. But Aberdeen and the state of South Dakota heard seven years of promises from Northern Beef Packers’ spokespeople about opening dates, job creation (also here), and quality production methods. Aberdeen got wastewater violations, a few months of jobs, and a now-idle beef plant that sold for a fraction of the cost to build it and may not be viable no matter who runs it.

Aberdeen may need to build up its roads in anticipation of a possible reopening of the beef plant, but I told the forum that the most important thing for Aberdeen to do with respect to Northern Beef Packers may be to build up its skepticism. Welcome whatever real economic development may come from a successfully relaunched plant, but view the beef plant’s promises with caution, and make sure the plant pays its fair share in taxes for whatever public costs subsidize its operations… if it ever operates.

9 Responses to If, Not When—Aberdeen Candidates Address Possible Northern Beef Packers Restart

  1. Paul Seamans

    I am going to have to retell the story of the Marquis deMores. He and his lovely wife, Medora, thought they could build a packing plant in the Badlands of North Dakota and ship sides of beef to Chicago on the newly invented refrigrated rail cars in the 1880’s. The Marquis felt that he could compete with the big packers of the time. You just don’t go head to head with an established packing plant, they can crush you. But the Marquis’ biggest problem is that the cattle numbers just weren’t there, there weren’t enough cattle in the area to make the packing plant work. The Marquis had not done his due diligence and he closed down the packing plant in short order and moved back to France and eventually was involved in the Dreyfuss Affair. The town of Medora still survives. Does any of this sound familiar? The powers that be in Aberdeen, as well as Governor Rounds, should have read this story a few years back.

  2. Trying to deal with the influx of immigrant workers? Twas the day when a job at the packing house was one of the best in the area. But it is so true. Trying to go head to head with established packing houses is going to be tough. Really think established packers are going to cede a section of their business to an upstart? This was NOT thoroughly researched and the Big Man in charge is now in D.C., “looking out for your interests”! (wink)

  3. Nick Nemec

    The only way this plant will ever be successful is if it finds a niche like 100% organic. South Dakota branded is not a good enough niche to even mess with.

  4. Deb Geelsdottir

    I agree with Nick. Find a niche. Organic is good. Kosher? Halal?

  5. Everybody loves Medora. I just have trouble seeing Aberdeen become that sort of a tourist draw given it’s lack of interesting geography and musical dinner shows.

  6. Yes, Bob. It’s “its” but I know your ears perk up at any mention of pitchfork fondue.

  7. Indeed, Nick. GOED just shot that brand with the Mars campaign.

  8. The Marquis deMores was the start for large production of cattle in the Dakotas, but the EB-5 was the crown of disappointment. Even considering kosher production was knocked in the melon at about the same time http://siouxcityjournal.com/news/local/a1/kosher-meat-plant-unlikely-for-union-county/article_4e417328-897d-5358-9ee6-b9cd40df29c4.html. There is simply not enough cattle to make these things work. Maybe an unexplained fire like the one in Rapid City would be the best answer to the issue at hand.

  9. mike from iowa

    Voters in SoDak have ignored the track record of presiding wingnuts for forty years. Maybe they aren’t paying attention to this albatross around their necks and just listen to rosy promises of a better time to come.

    If I fed cattle I wouldn’t sign any contract with this outfit to supply beef w/o cash on the barrelhead for every head contracted for. Who IS gonna supply cattle? No one in their right mind,imho.