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Published February 08, 2010, 09:12 AM

Community profile: Huron, SD

After the Dakota Pork processing plant in Huron, SD, closed without warning in 1997, community leaders were faced with the daunting challenge of replacing the plant’s 800 jobs and its sizable economic impact.

After the Dakota Pork processing plant in Huron, SD, closed without warning in 1997, community leaders were faced with the daunting challenge of replacing the plant’s 800 jobs and its sizable economic impact.

Beadle County’s unemployment rate jumped nearly 7 percent in a two-month span, topping 9 percent in September 1997. Many of the closed plant’s employees left the city along with others who lost their jobs when related businesses that depended on the plant closed up shop.

The resulting loss of population and economic activity threw the eastern South Dakota city of more than 11,000 into recession.

“When the plant closed it was a real wake up call for the community,” Mayor David McGirr recalls. “We decided that nobody else was going to fix Huron. We had to fix it ourselves. We came up with a new logo and a new slogan, ‘It’s a brand new day.’ We decided we weren’t going to cry in our beer anymore about Dakota Pork closing.”

In what has become a recurring theme, community and business leaders worked together to help recruit a new major meat processing facility and grow the local economy.

The community convinced a group of turkey growers to build the Dakota Provisions turkey processing plant on the eastern edge of town. The plant, which opened in January 2006, employs 675 workers and constitutes an approximately $70 million investment in the community. Affiliated businesses and ancillary services have also opened up in Huron, helping to serve as a turning point in the city’s economic recovery.

A $5-7 million expansion project is currently on the drawing board, slated for a separate site near the main plant, according to Ken Rutledge, Dakota Provisions’ president and CEO.

The new meat processing facility’s opening also helped the city attract a Walmart and led to increased commercial and retail development.

Retail leakage surveys taken before Walmart opened indicated that Huron was losing between $38 million and $52 million a year in lost sales taxes to other communities. The trend has since been reversed with the city’s retail sales growing by an eye-popping 47 percent during a three-year period following the opening of the Dakota Provisions plant and the new Walmart store. Despite the national recession, Huron officials were expecting last year’s sales tax collections to finish on par or above 2008 numbers.

Since 2004 the city has added 1,800 new jobs and a number of new businesses. City leaders are optimistic the 2010 census count will show sizable population gains.

ECONOMY REMAINS STEADY

Huron’s economy, which is largely dependent on agriculture, agribusiness and value-added agricultural processing, has been somewhat insulated from the struggles of the national economy. The city’s not-seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 3.7 percent in November, up from 2.5 percent a year earlier.

The housing market has remained strong, aided by a shortage of housing units in the city. The average home price in Huron has increased by 15 percent in the last year.

Peggy Woolridge, executive director of the Huron Chamber & Visitors Bureau, says housing and relocation assistance is the top inquiry of those who have contacted her office in the last nine months. A total of 40 apartment units have been added in the city within the last seven months with another 32 units planned in the near future. The city is also in the process of adding a handful of houses for those with low to moderate incomes.

A number of expansion and renovation projects have either recently been completed, are planned or are under construction.

“Our local economy has weathered the storm extremely well,” says Jim Borszich, executive director of the Greater Huron Development Corporation. “We’ve seen very few layoffs. One of the things we learned after Dakota Pork’s closing is that we needed to become more diversified. We now have little niches all over the place.”

SIGNS OF GROWTH

While agriculture-related industries still dominate the local economy, manufacturing, health care, government and education are also major employers. A number of local startup companies and manufacturing plants for national and international corporations have been successful and their growth has strengthened the local economy.

Huron-based AgSense has developed the first digital, cellular, GPS and web-based technology to help agricultural producers monitor irrigation pivots, grain bins and the weather. AgSense allows customers to monitor and control operations on their farms remotely by laptop, smart phone or blackberry through the use of GPS technology. Changes in conditions prompt text messages to be sent to customers, alerting them and allowing them to make immediate adjustments like shutting off irrigation pivots when a thunderstorm is on the way.

AgSense has tripled its sales in the last three years. “We will continue to grow,” says Terry Schiltz, who co-founded the company in 2003 with Mel Wieting. “Our focus is on raising our top-line revenue growth. We may also venture into the oil and gas industry.”

Huron-based Horizontal Machining and Manufacturing Inc. recently completed a $2.5 million expansion of its plant. Dakota Air Spray, whose retail agronomy business was acquired by San Francisco-based Wilbur-Ellis Company in 2007, and local bird seed company Sunbird Inc. are also both planning major expansion projects.

The nonprofit Huron Regional Medical Center also has eventual plans for two separate projects, totaling $12-14 million, that would renovate its same-day surgical unit and build a new medical clinic.

Link Snacks Inc. of nearby Alpena, SD, which was started by two local brothers, operates an Alpena manufacturing plant that produces beef jerky for Jack’s Links, the world’s fastest-growing meat snack manufacturer. The majority of the plant’s 800 employees live in Huron.

Huron startup OverBuilt specializes in manufacturing vehicle and equipment crushers and cubers. The company made a name for itself in the 1990s when it introduced a crusher with a higher opening ideal for crushing construction and farm equipment.

Vadnais Heights, MN-based Trussbilt, which produces security products like prison doors for detention facilities, and Minneapolis-based Banner Engineering Corporation, which makes photo eyes, sensors and associated products for industrial and process automation, also have Huron manufacturing facilities.

STRONG TOURISM INDUSTRY

Huron may not be a traditional tourist destination like the Black Hills, but the city is a major attraction for pheasant hunters and outdoor enthusiasts.

Pheasant hunting brings approximately 10,000 visitors and residents to the area each year and has an annual economic impact of more than $13 million on Beadle County.

Huron hosts the five-day South Dakota State Fair, which attracts nearly 163,000 visitors each fall. The state fairgrounds is also home to the Dakota State Fair Speedway, which holds stock car racing on Saturday nights during the summer and has held events such as the WISSOTA 100.

Huron attracts its share of meetings, conventions and special events. The Huron Event Center, which is attached to the Huron Arena and the remodeled Crossroads Hotel in downtown Huron, provides more than 34,000 combined square feet of meeting, banquet and expo space.

“Maybe we don’t have all the amenities of larger communities,” says Woolridge of the Huron Chamber & Visitors Bureau. “But when events come to Huron, people know they are here. Your event will have a prominent presence in the local community and the community will open its arms.”

INFRASTRUCTURE AND DIVERSITY

Recent renovation projects nearly doubled the size of the Huron Public Library and made improvements to the Beadle County Courthouse. A number of other facilities improvements have been made in the last year, including the addition of a new walking trail, recreational and athletic facility upgrades and the extension of both runways at the Huron Regional Airport. Improvements are also underway as part of a downtown beautification project that offers grant funds to business owners to renovate their storefronts.

The city has a strong arts presence for a community of its size with an arts council, a concert association, dinner theater events and the only community-based symphony orchestra in the state. Outdoor murals grace the sides of downtown buildings and the city also boasts a number of museums and historic sites.

Huron was a finalist in the National Civic League’s All-America City competition in 1994. City leaders were told at the time that the community’s lack of diversity was a major reason it wasn’t selected as one of the winning cities.

Less than two decades later Huron has one of the most ethnically diverse school systems in the state, helped by Dakota Provisions’ recruitment of minority groups to the area to work at its plant. Huron has a large concentration of Karen refugees from Burma (now known as Myanmar) as well as Hmong and Hispanic residents.

WORKFORCE TRAINING

After the 2005 closing of Huron University, community leaders put their heads together and created Huron Community Campus, which hosts Huron-based classes offered by nearby colleges.

Huron Community Campus has partnerships that allow local students to participate in Dakota Wesleyan University’s nursing program, seven hybrid Mitchell Technical Institute programs and three programs offered through Presentation College in Aberdeen, SD. Discussions are underway with Northern State University to add three more programs starting this fall.

“To lose the college was a huge blow,” says Marilyn Hoyt, a former Huron University employee who serves on the Huron Community Campus board of directors. “We thought this was the best chance of having some semblance of higher education in our community.”

The Fine Arts Center that was once part of Huron University and now hosts Huron Community Campus classes recently underwent major renovations and now hosts a multitude of community events.

Huron Community Campus focuses on vocational programs in high demand in the community, making it easier for residents who might not have attended an out-of-town college to receive a degree while living and working in Huron. The goal is to retain local graduates and provide area employers with a more skilled workforce to help build a better future for the community.

“Huron has done a great job of circling the wagons,” says Steve Ochsner, executive director of Huron Community Campus. “No one was glad to see the old campus close, but the community is a pretty good blueprint of what you can do when something like that happens.”

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