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.