A bankruptcy judge in Delaware approved the sale of the HyLife pork processing plant in Windom to Premium Iowa Pork on Friday. The closing is set for Monday.
The plant closed last week, and all 1000 of the workers were laid off. There is no indication as to whether the plant will reopen. The people of Windom are now trying to work out what this means for the future.
Mari Harries grew up in Windom. She moved around a bit but returned about 12 years ago. Now she owns River City Eatery in town and invested her life into the town that raised her.
“I came back because I love my community,” Harries said. “I love the opportunities that it gave me as a child to be able to, you know, ride my bike wherever, and be in all the sports and be at all of the activities and get a thirst and a hunger for more.”
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Harries’ business has experienced ups and downs since the COVID-19 pandemic. But with the HyLife closure, Harries said she feels a shadow looming over the local business scene. She chokes up while saying she’s struggled to make sense of the plant’s closure.
“Which I think emotion comes from,” Harries said. “I feel like we’re just being kicked while we’re down.”
An astronomical loss
Despite all the bad news downtown Windom still bustles with life. HyLife filed for bankruptcy in April. The plant employed about one-fifth of the town's 5,000 residents. Harries says that HyLife was embedded into the community, sponsoring events and having a major presence in the local economy.
She said many people feel completely left in the dark, blindsided by the closure and frustrated by the lack of updates, and that this wasn’t the first time there’s been upheaval at the Windom plant, as the facility changed multiple hands before being sold to HyLife in 2020.
“With this plant closing again, hopefully is an eye opener for the city of Windom to really consider figuring out, reimagining this because I don’t see a future for that pork plant with another business coming in,” Harries said. “Because, we’ve been through this so many times before.”
Renters gone, outstanding debts
Five Star Realty owner Kathy Hanson said she’s heard of landlords who now don’t have tenants at rental properties. And she’s heard from other business owners who are still owed hundreds of thousands of dollars by HyLife.
“As a community, we are made up of small businesses,” Hanson said. “We don’t have big 3Ms here and big businesses like that. A lot of the community is made up of small businesses, and we help each other, and we buy from each other, the best we can to support each other.”
The real estate market has been in flux since the pandemic, Hanson added. The realtor said she doesn’t know what impact HyLife’s closure will have. But she’s ready to step in and help where she can. She’s even considering cutting her own commission.
“That’s just how I run my business. I run it with a business mind, but also with a heart,” Hanson said. “It's a small community. I was born and raised here. Maybe that's part of it.”
Meanwhile, city officials are connecting displaced plant workers with potential new employers through career fairs organized at the Windom Community Center. The city requested and received $14 million dollars in state aid from the legislature.
The city is using $13 million — about $10 million to be used by Windom to facilitate the completion of the affordable housing that was built for HyLife plant workers. Another $2 million allocated to repay loans issued to the city for wastewater improvements related to the plant. Around $1 million was used in recruitment efforts for a buyer to purchase the facility.
About $1 million is given to Windom Area Schools to account for the loss in state funding because of an estimated 107 students leaving the district.
Windom’s Economic and Development Authority Director, Tiffany Lamb, said city staff are trying their best to mitigate the financial burden on taxpayers. She said they are encouraging business owners owed money by HyLife to file claims in bankruptcy court.
Lamb also said that Windom’s economy is diverse in its employment and goes beyond just agriculture and manufacturing. The support for local businesses is important, she added.
“There is going to be, I’m sure an economic impact for businesses with folks who do decide that the best thing for themselves and their families is to move out of the community, and we do hope that is minimal,” Lamb said. “We hope that long-term we’re going to see that plant reopen, but at this point, we just can’t know what the future brings with that.”
‘Like a Monopoly game’
But some believe these answers aren’t good enough.
Latino Universal Grocery Store, owners Janet Hernandez and Victor Acosta opened their small business three years ago. Around the time HyLife bought the pork plant.
They had dreams of opening up a meat shop in town. They’ve already seen their income drop because of the loss of the 500 workers on H-2B visas, almost all who have already left town.
They’re worried that customers and businesses are being driven away to other surrounding areas, and not attracting diverse businesses to keep money circulating in Windom’s local economy, and that most of the economy was centered around the HyLife plant.
“It kind of feels like the city of Windom is kind of playing like a monopoly game,” Hernandez said. “Where, only they benefit from it and not like other small companies.”
Despite not knowing what’s happening, Hernandez said that they’re doing OK. Though, some of their future plans may need to be put on hold.
“We want to stay here in Windom,” she said. “We’re gonna stay here. We’re not gonna go anywhere.”
Premium Iowa Pork, the plant’s new owner, did not respond to requests for comment.