CHEROKEE, Iowa | Mark Buschkamp remembers the feeling after picking up the phone and hearing the news: Tyson Fresh Meats in Cherokee would be closing. And with it, 455 jobs.

"It felt like my heart moved up to my throat," says Buschkamp, executive director of the Cherokee Area Economic Development Corporation. "You sit there and you think of the people affected, their families, our businesses and the housing market."

Rather than sing the blues, Buschkamp and hundreds of people throughout Cherokee County began to dig in. A few businesses expanded in the wake of Tyson's closing. The Tyson plant itself has been shown to two prospective businesses, although Tyson's lease makes it difficult to find another suitor at present.

Still, unemployment, which peaked in Cherokee County at 6.6 percent 11 months ago, has settled back to just beyond 5 percent. The housing market remains strong, Buschkamp says, as entities like the Hy-Vee Distribution Warehouse, home to approximately 500 employees, continue to add workers.

About the same time Tyson closed, officials with Shopko announced they would open a store in the Cherokee County seat. That $3 million construction project celebrated a grand opening on Nov. 6. Forty employees helped get the store up and running near the intersection of Highways 3 and 59 on the north edge of the community.

"I'm very blessed to be able to say the impact (of Tyson's closing) hasn't been anywhere near as severe as expected," Buschkamp says.

To that end, Cherokee celebrates once again this month, by singing the blues and a whole lot more. An estimated 1,000 fun-seekers are expected to converge on this community Friday and Saturday for the 16th Annual Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival.

Dozens of acts are coming, from places like Lawrence, Kansas, and Memphis, Tennessee, bringing lively sounds in the dead of winter, pumping people and their cash through one of the first "cultural and entertainment districts" in the state.

"Cherokee is a lot hipper, I like the direction they're going," says Dale Rupp, a native of tiny Maryhill in Cherokee County and, for the past 40 years, a barber and musician in Des Moines. "What's happening in Cherokee is a lot like what Des Moines has done with the East Village."

The Copper Cup, The Gathering Place, The Brightside and The Gasthaus, all are small businesses in downtown Cherokee that open their doors to let the music in next weekend, hosting acts like Rupp's Abby Normal band from Des Moines, and groups such as the Ghost Town Blues Band, Brother Tucker, Brody Buster and more.

Buschkamp was in Kansas City, Missouri, on a family outing when he caught Brody Buster playing at Club Phoenix. He knew that B.B. King had called Buster one of the world's greatest harmonica players. He also knew of Buster from his performances on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and "The Jon Stewart Show."

"The place was just elbow-to-elbow with people and they were all there to see Brody Buster," Buschkamp says.

Months later, he put the word out and helped land Buster for the Cherokee Jazz & Blues Festival. He'll play from 9 p.m. to midnight Friday at The Brightside.

In addition to the multitude of acts at various venues both Friday and Saturday night, there's the popular student music clinic throughout the day on Friday and a 1-5 p.m. jam session on Saturday at The Gathering Place.

"We invite people to bring their sticks and their guitars and just jam with the musicians," Buschkamp says. "The jam session grew so much last year that not everybody could play, so they walked to The Brightside Lounge, which didn't have a group playing on Saturday night, and the musicians just set up in there."

The festival, like its home base, adjusted on-the-go for the betterment of its residents and its many visitors.



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