CLINTON, Ia. — Debra Fausey worked at TMK IPSCO, a factory near Clinton, for 25 years. When it closed in 2015, she was devastated. She thought she would retire from there.
“Now, I’m 60, and I don’t know much else, just the factory life,” she said. “It’s really hard out there. There are just not many jobs where you can have just one job. The pay is so low, you almost have to have two jobs to survive.”
Fausey, who is single, was laid off from a job that paid $21.75 an hour and is taking community college courses to get an associate degree for office and administrative jobs, although she said she is lucky to have a 401(k) to fall back on. Most of her adult life, she wore a helmet blackened by steel dust as she clocked out of the Camanche factory, which made welded pipe. Today, she pulls a wheeled pack of books to a tidy classroom.
“In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be going to school at age 60,” Fausey said. “But when I get done in 2018, who is going to hire me at my age?”
Clinton, like Fausey, is trying to reinvent itself. In the 1800s, the city grew by milling lumber that floated down the Mississippi River and became home to millionaire lumber barons — until the trees ran out. Then, manufacturing industries picked up the ball. Now, another transformation may be needed.
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Since the 1990s, midsize cities like Clinton, with a population of 26,000, have borne the brunt of economic changes wrenching the nation and Iowa, including declines in manufacturing and increased overseas competition, said David Peters, an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University who specializes in regional and rural development.
Since the recession, metropolitan areas in Iowa have grown, gathering political influence and government funding. But micropolitan areas, with 10,000 to 50,000 population, such as Clinton, Keokuk, Fort Madison and Mason City, have collectively suffered population and job loss and have not recovered as well as their larger counterparts, he said.
A recent ISU report shows that, when grouped together and compared to rural and metropolitan areas, Iowa's 17 micropolitan areas in 19 Iowa counties had:
- The lowest median household income in 2015 ($50,770).
- The highest poverty rates (13.8 percent).
- The lowest labor force participation (64.8 percent).
- The highest unemployment rate (4.2 percent).
Eleven of Iowa’s micropolitan areas have lost jobs since 2008, and nine of them have lost population. At the bottom of both categories is the Clinton micropolitan area, losing 7 percent of its jobs and 2.7 percent of its population.
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Clinton city officials say they are trying hard to combat the trends, and good things are on the horizon, but the city remains an example of economic forces sweeping though Iowa that are changing the state's dynamic.
Their economic numbers tell a story of ever-smaller worker and retail bases, said Dave Swenson, who along with Liesl Eathington at ISU authored the February report on dwindling economic and social capital of micropolitan areas.
Those numbers mean hardship for the cities' residents, but also affect the health of surrounding small towns that rely on them as job and trade centers.
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Outside the window of the county museum, the river bustles past, carrying loaded barges. The railroad is big here, and Union Pacific serves the new, 345-acre Lincolnway Industrial Rail & Air Park. It’s two hours from Chicago by highway, completing a robust transportation picture. Major industries such as agricultural processor Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and chemical manufacturer LyondellBasell loom like giants along Highway 30 heading into town.
All should be well. But the city feels forgotten, so far east on Iowa’s protruding belly that folks here complain it's sometimes left off maps.
At the museum, a local historian tells us about amenities such as the showboat, the minor-league baseball team and the well-tended riverfront.
An amateur genealogist in the back office pipes up. She’s one of the first people a Register reporter met during a recent visit to town, and she’s looking for a job. Like many here, she’s worked in factories most her life. There are jobs out there, said 53-year-old Annette Lucas.
“But if they are hiring at all, it’s for foremen or managers. The other option is Wal-Mart or a gas station,” she said.
Clinton has lost more than one-third of its manufacturing jobs since 1978. And when the jobs go, the people go. The city lost 20 percent of its population in the past 35 years. In the past few years, the biggest loss has been among the heart of the working-age population, ages 16 to 44.
In addition to IPSCO’s closing, Clinton lost other manufacturers employing more than 100 people in recent years, including Evergreen Packaging and Thomas & Betts Corp., which made electrical components. A white-collar blow rounded out the bad news with the closing of Ashford University in 2016. Even discount retailer Target packed up and took off.
“We talk about rural areas and cities a lot, but these micropolitan areas are important,” said ISU’s Peters. “They don’t hold a lot of the state’s population, but they provide a lot of the critical services,” including post-secondary education, health care and social services.
He said those cities need to follow the example of U.S. cities that have made a transition to a post-industrial economy, such as Cleveland, which has leaned on its universities and medical centers to drive its reinvention. With increased automation, an economic development strategy of luring in big manufacturers won’t cut it.
Swenson, his colleague at ISU, agrees that the push for more jobs at big manufacturers is a “race to the bottom.” He suggests shifting to luring professional services jobs in health care and education and attracting lawyers, accountants and architects.
But City Councilman Sean Connell said that today's manufacturing plants offer well-paid jobs requiring higher education, from engineers to accountants and managers.
“To say we need to get away from the ADMs of the world isn’t true. This is where we are at; we are on the river,” he said. “We need to play to those strengths.”
Connell, 32, is older than two other council members. He says the city needs to foster youthful energy and focus on creating a climate for small business. His company is a specialty metal fabricator. The hurdle is finding workers.
“Working with your hands has gone by the wayside. Even in my own business, it’s a struggle to find the kids that just want to learn a trade,” he said. “Manufacturers need people to do drafting and engineering, but also people to run machinery.”
Clinton's challenge in filling skilled manufacturing jobs is felt across Iowa. Plants use more automation, and the jobs are more advanced, said Andrea Feller, employment and training counselor at Clinton Community College for Iowa WORKS, which focuses on higher-skill training.
“Our workforce focuses on four years of college,” she said. “But what we don’t realize is those two-year technical degrees and apprenticeships are hugely needed. And they have great pay and benefits.”
It's tough to find employees in manufacturing when fewer people choose to live in the Keokuks and Clintons of the world, instead moving to the cities. From 2010 to 2016, Iowa's metropolitan areas grew 5.8 percent, while micropolitan areas lost 1.2 percent of their population.
“Unemployment is low, but I think a lot of that is because people have moved away,” said Jeff Anderson, a lifelong Clintonian and chief executive officer at Custom-Pak, one of Clinton’s largest employers. It makes blow-molded parts and machines.
He said housing is a problem. Recently, he unsuccessfully attempted to help his son buy a home in Clinton. “You and I remember a time when you buy a home, you bank on appreciation and come out OK. The homes I saw, you buy that house and you would immediately be upside down.”
The typical home tax assessment was 3.3 percent above the sale price on 312 residential properties in Clinton in 2014, according to equalization data from the Iowa Department of Revenue.
Downtown needs work, too. Many of the buildings are old or vacant.
To create that workforce, Anderson said, Clinton must become a town you want to move to.
A drive around town shows big, stately homes of the old lumber barons and pockets of run-down housing that Anderson spoke of.
The riverfront boasts a charming old ballpark that's home to the Seattle Mariners' LumberKings (Clinton is one of the smallest cities in the nation to have a professional baseball affiliate). It's just upriver from a food bank whose demand grows weekly.
The economic struggles are noticeable among Clinton’s poor, social service workers said.
“The kids I see are victims,” said Heather Carlson, a psychologist in town. “I think some of them are subject to their circumstances. Their parents don’t have jobs. There is substance abuse. How much of that is not being able to find a job? How much of that is the reason they couldn’t keep a job? It’s a chicken-and-egg thing.”
Carlson, 31, faces the local economic downturn on another level. She has a master’s degree but says it's difficult in Clinton because few employers want to pay the salary usually demanded by an advanced education.
People using the Information, Referral & Assistance Services’ food pantry have increased 37 percent in the past three years. Concentrating more mental health services in larger metropolitan areas such as the Quad Cities and closing a shelter in Clinton has led to more challenges in helping those in need.
“The population looks different,” said Regan Michaelson, the agency’s executive director. “The frustration is more visible. Layoffs at the larger manufacturers where people were making a living wage has left a lot of jobs at minimum wage.”
Christine McManus, 48, works for minimum wage cleaning rooms at the Motel 6 in Clinton. During her lunch break, she and many of the maids take a free sack lunch and food bank items given by the Franciscan Peace Center. The center started the program in 2014, and 20 people were served each noon hour. Today it’s 70 to 90.
McManus said she was raised on hard work by her business-owning parents. But she was forced to work for minimum wage when she couldn’t find a manufacturing job and her husband, who doesn’t have health insurance, was off the job in his body shop for nine weeks with an injury.
“We’d like to be in a different position financially. I’ve been applying,” she said. "But I need to work."
Lori Freudenberg, the Franciscan’s outreach coordinator, says higher-paying jobs and better housing would help.
“But mental health keeps getting cut by the government, and people can’t get jobs if they have mental health problems,” she said. “I’m disgusted how we don’t see the forest for the trees.”
A city's struggles affect more than the ill and poor.
Rob Cassidy is the third-generation owner of Paul’s Discount, an iconic local discount store that has thrived here since 1964, although the pie gets smaller as high-paying jobs have left Clinton.
But what nearly drove him to become a commuter to his own store was the loss of the country club, which he attributes to the loss of residents, especially upper management of major companies, who choose to live elsewhere.
“It was a devastating blow to me," he said. "I grew up on the course. It’s where we socialized with friends, where the kids swam. But we made the decision that Clinton is our home, and better days are ahead.”
Solutions to improving the outlook in Clinton and the other micropolitan areas in Iowa are not easy to come by.
When economic development consultant Dean Barber was invited to visit Clinton to address local officials last year, he told them that the jobs of the future are digital.
“We are going from machine tenders to machine programmers,” said Barber, of Dallas, Texas. “They are calling coders the next blue-collar job.”
Companies won’t locate in areas without a ready pool of talent, Barber said in a telephone interview. Beyond publicly funded retraining efforts, such as those at Clinton Community College, companies need to invest in their own training, he said.
His other advice: Economic development officials need to spend more time retaining current employers rather than chasing after the headlines of attracting new manufacturers. Supplying better broadband service also would help.
Clinton Regional Development Corp.’s chief executive officer, Mike Kirchhoff, said the state should give more assistance to communities that need the boost instead of concentrating resources on urban areas that are doing relatively well.
“If you look at the target industries of the state, you will see it’s very Des Moines-centric," he said. "You will see insurance. I don’t have insurance in Clinton. I have metal fabrication, chemical processing, value-added agriculture.”
In an analysis of state Iowa Economic Development data from 2011 to 2016 by Jay Howe of the City Development Board of Iowa, more than half of economic development projects took place in 11 urban counties, while 42 percent took place in the 88 other counties. Only 28 percent of tax benefits and incentives went to rural counties.
Howe questioned why half the state’s population should have to relocate just to earn a living.
Steve Teney, an economics professor at Clinton Community College, said the area should focus on “gray matter jobs” instead of factory jobs “that aren’t coming back.”
That’s why the loss of Ashford University has been a focus for Kirchhoff and other development officials. Bridgepoint Education, Ashford's former for-profit owner, closed the campus to focus on online education. The university, a fixture in the middle of town since it was founded as Mount St. Clare College in 1918, held its final graduation last May.
Bridgepoint said it invested $40 million in the campus, including updated laboratories and technological innovations that officials here say are the envy of much bigger colleges.
Hopes are high that the campus can become the state’s first STEM academy, educating the state’s brightest high school students in math, science and engineering programs.
“The goal is to have rigorous academic program for people trying to get into MIT,” said Brian Clem of Clinton Catalyst, a group of investors who bought the facility.
The nonprofit Asian Education Foundation took ownership of the property for tax purposes, he said. Its goal is to introduce another component of the school, attracting tuition-paying Chinese students to financially support the school, while it would be free to Iowa students.
“The population has shrunk, and it's getting older here," Clem said, while students in overcrowded Chinese schools have parents willing to pay for their education in the U.S. “You could rebalance the situation.”
Sen. Rita Hart, D-Clinton, said STEM education is what Iowa has preached to expand its educated workforce.
“We tried to get it into the governor’s budget, a STEM academy for the state of Iowa, but that didn’t happen,” she said. “We’re going to keep at it.”
Other initiatives that are important, she said, are the longtime effort to widen a small gap of Highway 30 from two to four lanes. With a similar small gap widened in Illinois, it would mean four-lane transportation from Omaha to Chicago, an attractive factor for business.
To others, the struggles of Iowa’s small cities often come down to individual initiative.
“We had blows in the ‘80s with the farm crisis. Maybe that left some marks, and I get that,” said Ron Lott, pastor of First Baptist Church. “But the thing that has been shooting us in the foot is a longstanding negativity. We’ve rehearsed all the negative junk. We need to lift up the positive.”
He helped start a community assistance group out of his church. Participants have helped the poor and cleaned up houses. But they also helped spearhead a project to restore the band shell on the riverfront.
He thinks Clinton could be another Galena, Ill., which attracts tourists from throughout the Midwest to shop and dine at an attractive riverfront, if the city lured more higher-end retailers and young entrepreneurs to stimulate the economy.
“Not with 500 employers but 50 businesses with 10 employees each,” he said. “A micropolitan community with a micro approach.”
This project examines sweeping demographic and workplace changes confronting Iowans, their communities and the state’s economy. It seeks to encourage conversation and offer ideas to help Iowa thrive.
About this project
Installments of Changing Iowa will publish about once every six weeks. The project will also include:
Join a Facebook Live chat at noon Monday to discuss the challenges facing Iowa’s micropolitan areas and what can be done to increase their economic vitality. Engagement and opinion editor Lynn Hicks will moderate the discussion. Also participating will be David J. Peters, associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University, who researches regional and rural development. Have a question you want addressed during the chat? Email Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to sign up to be notified when the chat begins.
COMMENTARY: Do you have ideas for addressing issues raised in the series? Write a letter to the editor or pitch an op-ed column, 500 words or less, to engagement and opinion editor Lynn Hicks, email@example.com, 515-284-8290.
EVENTS: The Register plans to partner with local organizations to stage several forums around the state to hear directly from Iowans. Look for more details soon.
OTHER IDEAS? News director Annah Backstrom is the coordinating editor for the project. Contact her with your ideas and comments, firstname.lastname@example.org, 515-284-8065.
WHAT’S NEXT: The population of English-language learner students has increased dramatically across Iowa. If you would like to comment on how this trend is affecting your schools and community, contact education reporter Mackenzie Ryan, email@example.com, 515-284-8543.