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After Big Losses, Mendota Working To Move Forward

Guy Stephens/pixlr

As you head off Interstate 39 and drive west toward Mendota, the sign inviting you to the city’s annual summer sweet corn festival reminds you that you’re in farm country. The big Del Monte processing plant further in confirms that. But manufacturing has long been a big part of Mendota’s economy, too. So R.R. Donnelley was hailed back in 1992 when it bought a closed local printing plant, adding high-skilled, high-wage jobs to the community.

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(from left) Mendota Mayor David Boelk, City Clerk Emily McConville, Dislocated Workers Center Director Joel Torbeck and Mendota Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Alison Wasmer.

But a year ago, on March 28,  Donnelley abruptly announced it was closing the plant by the end of May, taking away those jobs and wages. Then, in late summer, Bay Valley Foods announced that it would close its soup-processing unit by the end of the year, putting another hundred or so people out of work.  Mendota Mayor David Boelk admits he felt like things were piling on.

“and in our economic times that we were in, it just looked real tough, a devastating picture.”

Mendota City Clerk Emily McConville agrees:

“It’s a small town. A lot of the people that lost their jobs were friends, relatives, so it was not only devastating from an economic development view, it was devastating personally, too.”

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R. R. Donnelley employed more than 200 people at its Mendota plant before closing the facility in 2012.

Joel Torbeck heads the Dislocated Workers Center at Illinois Valley Community College.  The program helps workers who have lost their jobs get back to work.

“If they need new skills, they can go back to school and their training is paid for. We assist people with their job search and help them with things like resumes, interviewing skills, also doing referrals.”

Torbeck says many of those at Donnelley and Bay Valley had never worked anywhere else, and some needed help to get their basic skills up to the standards of today’s job market.

If there’s a silver lining in all this, Torbeck says, it’s that the closings were so large they triggered emergency funding from the federal government to help the college handle the additional workload.

Torbeck says that, if the workers can stick it out and retrain, hope is on the horizon. Many baby boomers will be retiring soon, opening up jobs in all fields. And, while there are fewer manufacturing jobs, the aging population portends a boom in health and senior care jobs.

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Before it closed, Bay Valley Foods employed more than 100 workers in its soup processing unit, housed at Del Monte's Mendota plant.

But those jobs won’t necessarily be in Mendota, and city officials are not waiting to find out. City Clerk Emily McConville says Mendota is working hard to build on its advantages -- a location near two major interstates, a nearby barge terminal, a major rail line running through town with a spur off of it, a new hospital and high school -- so that, when industry comes calling, they’ll be shovel-ready.

“We also have quite a few city incentives. Whether it be waiving permit fees, tap-on fees. We have TIFs."

The city also is working on infrastructure improvements. The most obvious is a new water tower you can see as you come into town. Mayor Boelk says the city also has dug a new well and is upgrading its water and sewer lines.

“Not knowing what you’re going to attract, but knowing we are from the growing belt, we wanted our water supplies to be more than adequate.”

The city also is upgrading its electrical and fiber optic capacity.  And it’s purchased land, in order to speed up real estate transactions that might impede a deal with a prospective employer.

No one expects this to happen overnight and, in the meantime, there’s concern about the businesses in town. Mendota Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Alison Wasmer says the Chamber has stepped up its marketing efforts. It’s also working with other chambers on a regional basis.

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“Something we just worked on was a job fair. We called it Hire One, to get companies in LaSalle County to just hire one employee and the effect that would have on all of LaSalle County.”

Wasmer says Mendota, like many other communities, also is doing promotions to encourage residents to shop locally to bolster Mendota businesses.

Still, there’s no substitute for a new employer with lots of good jobs. Mayor Boelk says the city came close to getting a firm to locate in the old Donnelley plant. The company ultimately decided to expand in its original location, but the mayor says they liked what they saw, and said so, and that gives him hope. He also takes heart in the city’s history and its heart.

“It’s just a great place to live and I know that, like we always have, we come back very strong, and we will.”

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A bronze statue of "Wild Bill" Hickok by local artist William Piller stands in front of the local museum in Mendota. Hickok, an Illinois native, came to Mendota in 1869 to recuperate from a leg wound caused by a Cheyenne warrior's lance and to visit his mother.

In the meantime, like the farms that surround the city, Mendota can only prepare the ground for what it hopes will one day be a new bumper crop -- of jobs.

About Community Close-Up:

The WNIJ audience includes a wide geographic area in diverse communities with a wide range of challenges and opportunities. This occasional series will inform our audience -- both on air and online -- of activities, opportunities and events in individual communities to build common understanding among listeners of the government, business and social climate in northern Illinois.

Guy Stephens produces news stories for the station, and coordinates our online events calendar, PSAs and Arts Calendar announcements. In each of these ways, Guy helps keep our listening community informed about what's going on, whether on a national or local level. Guy's degrees are in music, and he spent a number of years as a classical host on WNIU. In fact, after nearly 20 years with Northern Public Radio, the best description of his job may be "other duties as required."
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