CHEROKEE, Iowa | Orange signs warning of a "Rough Road" welcome motorists into Cherokee on Highway 59 at the onset of the Labor Day weekend.
"Rough Road" describes what Cherokee's been on since July 25. Such is the description when a major employer, Tyson Foods, announces plans to close its deli foods operation, eliminating 450 jobs. The plant is scheduled to close Sept. 27.
Cherokee has traveled a "Rough Road" before. So have many of Tyson's workers, many of whom have obtained work elsewhere. I know of some who transferred within the company, others who moved south, and still others who are latching on locally as other Cherokee businesses expand.
The labor force that built and sustained the Illinois Central Railroad in Northwest Iowa helped build Cherokee more than a century ago. With that industry came hundreds blue collar jobs. There were 196 people in Cherokee employed by the railroad in 1924.
Today? Zero Cherokee residents work for the railroad.
A resilient town rolls with economic punches. Same goes for the workers this holiday weekend fetes.
Lynn Laursen clocks out of work around noon on Friday and heads to the Cherokee Community Center. Laursen, an 11-year veteran of the Tyson plant in Cherokee, checks on his registration with the local satellite of the Iowa Workforce Development Office.
Laursen, a native of Peterson, Iowa, worked at Mid-American Lamb in Paullina, Iowa, for 2 1/2 years in the 1980s. He lost his job there when the plant closed in June 1986. He labored for Beef Specialists of Iowa in Hartley for 13 years. It closed in February 2003 and, again, he found himself in search of a job.
He landed at Tyson in Cherokee and currently earns his living as an injector operator at the plant where deli meats, hams, Canadian bacon and hot dogs are made.
"We worked lots of long hours, 10- to 12-hour days, six days per week earlier this year," Laursen says. "They had strong demand for the product we were doing up until June.
"And then, bang, it went away."
Whether a change in demand had something to do with consumers' tastes, higher costs for beef and pork, or the fact that Tyson on July 2 signed a $7.75 billion deal to buy Hillshire Brands Co., the maker of Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park hot dogs, Laursen isn't sure.
That's fodder for those at the executive level, he says.
"Corporate made the decision," Laursen says. "It's the guys in the salt mine who did the work. I know it's been quite a merry-go-round."
Same goes for Cherokee. For on the same day Tyson delivered its sky-is-falling announcement, the community landed Shopko, which will open a store in the former Harley-Davidson building on Highway 59. A mix of 24 full- and part-time positions are expected to staff the store in a site that's been largely vacant for a decade.
Additionally, several firms in Cherokee continue to operate in an expansion mode. "Now Hiring" banners, one for Schoon Construction and one for American National Soy, stand near the "Rough Road" signs on Highway 59 immediately south of this city of 5,253.
Cherokee Area Economic Development Corp. Director Mark Bushkamp says the Hy-Vee Distribution Warehouse, home to an estimated 430 employees, seeks to hire an additional 30 workers. VT Industries, a local manufacturing plant in nearby Holstein, seeks production workers and more as it celebrates a $6 million expansion.
Three years ago, Bushkamp notes, the local Tyson plant absorbed workers from a Tyson facility in Oklahoma. Employment at Tyson in Cherokee ballooned to 770 not long after the company completed a multimillion-dollar expansion at the plant in 2010.
Chances are, someone at some point will put the 49-year-old production facility to use. They will if there's money to be made.
It's not over in Cherokee.
Laursen follows a co-worker into the Iowa Workforce Development site as rain on a gray day continues to fall. The woman who won't identify herself has a test to take. She's hoping to qualify for job retraining assistance, or educational aid. She hopes to one day work as a sonographer.
Cherokee Regional Medical Center, I observe, is also hiring.
As for Laursen? He's taking a long Labor Day weekend away from work. He'll take unemployment once the plant closes and his job is eliminated. Or, he'll land on his feet with a new job within the next few weeks.
He won't worry.
"Some people are wound up about this, they're pretty scared," he says. "I've been through it twice before and I'm still here."
Same goes for Cherokee.