Town in Iowa left on its own

The Baltimore Sun

NEWTON, Iowa -- Soon the only items coming out of Newton bearing the Maytag name will be the blue cheese made famous at the farms created by the appliance giant's founding family.

Before October ends, the final few hundred washer-dryer assembly workers at the immense Plant 2 at Maytag Corp.'s world headquarters will clock out and get their last paychecks, shuttering an operation that had employed as many as 2,600 workers five years ago.

It will be one more step in the $2.6 billion acquisition and consolidation begun last year by rival appliance-maker Whirlpool Corp., and it will sever a relationship that dominates Newton's landscape - a reflection of how tightly the town and Maytag's personal and corporate family have intersected for more than a century, since Frederick Maytag set up shop as a farm implement dealer.

"Somebody had a quote that losing Maytag was like the death of a parent," said Mayor Chaz Allen. "We're on our own now."

A community of about 16,000 tucked into a corn-and-soybean landscape, Newton faces challenges that symbolize the effects of globalization going on throughout Iowa.

As in all things economic, there are winners and losers, and those who have become victims in a global economy quickly try to find ways to become winners.

Newton is going through an economic transformation, including seeking international business investment. Surrounding farmers are benefiting from the global demand for petroleum through high corn and soybean prices for agricultural-enhanced fuel. At the same time, immigrants streaming to pork-processing jobs in nearby Marshalltown have strained the region's resources and sometimes its patience.

"You'd stand on the assembly line, and it'd be brother-in-law, you, your cousin and your next-door neighbor all working right there in line," Doug Bishop said on a driving tour through Maytag Park, past the Fred Maytag swimming pool and the Fred Maytag bowl, a band shell that serves as the home of high school graduation ceremonies. "It was sort of a family, an extended version, standing there side by side."

Bishop worked 7 1/2 years on a dryer assembly line before being laid off. After eight months of schooling paid under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement, he got a job at the Jasper County treasurer's office, was later appointed treasurer, then elected.

"You'd buy a Maytag, you knew it was good forever," he said after a drive past Dependability Square, the road in front of Maytag's former headquarters.

For Newton's survival, people are looking at diversification, using a $10 million state fund to provide incentives to lure new business.

While Newton's population has remained steady during the layoffs at Maytag, some of those put out of work are commuting to manufacturing jobs in Marshalltown, building windows in Pella or making adhesive products at a 3M plant in Knoxville.

The old Maytag headquarters is now the home of Iowa Telecom. This year, 30 jobs were created at a new biodiesel facility.

But any new jobs aren't going to pay as much as the $18 an hour earned by Maytag workers.

Allen, the mayor, said he's hopeful that a competition for jobs will lead to increased wages.

"We've got a work force that had been the best in the world," he said. "They want that title back."

Rick Pearson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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