The mayor of Postville says his community is still recovering from what happened at the town’s kosher meat packing plant nearly two years ago. In May of 2008 nearly 400 people were rounded up in an immigration raid at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville. Postville Mayor Leigh Rekow was in Des Moines Tuesday to celebrate the plant’s rebirth under a new name — Agri Star — and new management.
“As a city we are still dealing with some of the negative issues of the past,” Rekow said. “…Agri Star and its success play a large part in our recovery.” Rekow admits there was some concern that the Agriprocessors plant would not reopen after that raid and the fraud charges filed against the plant’s former manager.
But a Canadian-based company bought the plant eight months ago and spent nearly seven-and-a-half million dollars modernizing the facility, which has been processing kosher chicken and turkey under the “Agri Star” label. In the past two weeks beef production has resumed at the plant and there are 560 people on the payroll today.
“When the other plant closed we were left with a huge amount of empty houses, unpaid taxes, water bills that were owed, heating, electricity, but with the plant opening all these people have hope again,” Rekow said. “And our community has been very positive that we will survive and we will get back to where we were and maybe even be better.”
Agri Star C.E.O. Hershey Friedman says he meets regularly with the mayor and other city officials to build “trust” with the residents of Postville. Friedman says it made sense to keep production in Postville rather than build a new plant elsewhere because people who have expertise in kosher processing have made Postville their home.
“There’s a community in Postville which had been there,” Friedman says. “…There are managers and staffing that had stayed on even after the demise of the previous ownership, so we had the personnel to be able to do a quick start.” According to Friedman, there’s a shortage of American-produced kosher meat and the market is “more than ready to accept” products under the Agri Star brand. According to the mayor of Postville, Friedman has done more than just modernize the plant.
“I mean, it was a challenge because of the reputation, the raid, mistreatment of some of the workers,” Rekow said. “And when (Friedman) bought it, he just became straightforward and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do: the workers are going to be treated good. They will be safe…and we’ll pay a fair wage,’ so it has worked out real well and we’re real happy right now.”
About 35 students have enrolled in the town’s high school in the past two weeks because their parents got jobs at the plant when the beef production line started operating. As word spreads about new jobs at the plant, people have started traveling to Postville, looking for work and putting new strains on the support networks for the poor. The mayor acknowledges the upheaval surrounding the packing plant has been too much for some Postville residents.
“You’ll always have a certain amount of people that don’t accept change. They want things to be the way they were and in this day and age that cannot happen,” Rekow said. “We need to move forward. We have good community leaders that have stepped forward and have done a lot of good things to help Postville progress and we’re moving forward.” Before the raid in 2008, there were about 2,8oo people living in Postville.
A year later, the mayor estimates the population was down by about a thousand. Today — another year later — the population has begun to rebound.