After a six-and-a-half-hour meeting, the city council in Mason City early this morning split its vote on the development agreement with Prestage Foods.
It dooms the North Carolina company’s plans to build a $240 million pork processing plant in the northern Iowa city, along with up to 2,000 jobs.
Councilman John Lee was among the “no” votes. “We have a history in Mason City of saying ‘no’ to people and they go other places and do extremely well,” Lee says. “We sit here and bang our head against the wall and say, ‘What the hell happened? Why us?’ You saw why us. In my head I say yes, but not my town. My vote’s no.”
The council ended with a three-to-three vote and a majority of four votes was needed to approve the proposal. Lee says one of his concerns is the potential for extra spending by the schools to deal with English language learners. “I got those numbers late last week from the schools, from the city and I’ve been crunching numbers and truthfully, some of those numbers I think have been overexaggerated,” Lee says. “I’ve been a numbers guy and those numbers aren’t there. There is a gap and it’s a big gap and it makes me nervous.”
Councilman Bill Schickel, who participated by phone while recuperating at home after having surgery, says the project had potential for the Mason City economy, but he listened to the community members who opposed it. “The key thing I’ve learned is that for this thing to work, it must have acceptance in the community and that hasn’t happened,” Schickel says. “Also, I’ve learned there are greater costs to our schools, social services and government services than I originally understood. My head tells me this could be a good thing but my heart tells me it’s creating too much turmoil.”
Councilmen Alex Kuhn continued to oppose the development agreement package, saying it wasn’t the best for the community. “There have been so many comparisons to other communities, what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong, how do we learn from it,” Kuhn says. “If we’re going to do this right, it needed to be much more conservative. There’s still a gap that is going to lead me to vote no on that. It’s not an anti-Prestage Farms, it’s just trying to do this sustainably, long term for our community, looking out five, ten, 15 years, trying to do it right.”
Among the “yes” votes, Councilman Travis Hickey says Prestage was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. “A lot of people say we’ve got better things coming. I’ve been on the economic development board for six years now. These projects just don’t happen to come along,” Hickey says. “We didn’t seek them out. They put in a bid with the state of Iowa. That lead was given to our economic development coordinator and he brought that to us and that’s why we brought this to the community and we’ve been working on this since back in December.”
Councilman Brent Schoneman says some of the people who spoke against the Prestage proposal were sensationalizing information due to their opposition of corporate farming. “Whether you hate them or not, you have to understand the tactics of spinning the lack of information and giving that fear, the fear of moving forward in a project that’s very good for the community,” Schoneman says. “You’ll never have all the facts. When we make a business decision, if I have to wait to get all the facts before I jump, we will never move. You’ll never have all the facts. You have to hone in to the best information you have and move forward.” Some 63 people spoke during a public hearing on the development agreement, with 48 of those being against the project. Officials with Prestage Foods refused to comment after the vote was taken.
(Reporting by Bob Fisher, KRIB, Mason City)