Community crisis control; Citizens look for solutions as Gateway workers lose jobs

Community crisis control; Citizens look for solutions as Gateway workers lose jobs Speakers at Tuesday's meeting included Lynn Chasing Hawk (at left) of the South East Council of Governments, and Cip Jungberg, an economic development representative with the U.S. Department of Commerce. by M. Jill Karolevitz In the wake of the announcement of Gateway layoffs, which will affect 383 employees of the Vermillion facility alone, concerned community members gathered Feb. 6 at the Vermillion Public Library for what appears to be the first of many crisis solution meetings.

Officials from the city of Vermillion, Chamber of Commerce, Clay County and the Vermillion Development Company, along with interested individuals from throughout the city, met with representatives of various organizations that are geared to help solve problems that occur in times of major employee displacement.

�This is serious for Vermillion,� said Mayor William Radigan, referring to the Gateway news, which was announced in January. �We�re deeply concerned about the people who are affected. I can�t imagine anything worse than losing your job. I�m sure it�s a very difficult time for them. But we�re not going to lay down and let the tractor run over us. We want to see if we can do something about this situation.

�We want to get out of the gate as soon as we can, because we all know that the last horse out of the gate doesn�t win,� he added. �That�s why we�re meeting here tonight, to see what can be done.�

Lynn Chasing Hawk, the

ecutive director of the South Eastern Council of Governments, told the audience that SECOG can help the community apply for grants that are available for economic planning and development. Sonja Dean, a field officer for Sen. Tim Johnson�s office, added that Johnson is willing to help in any way he can.

�This is his hometown,� Dean said. �He wants to do anything he can to help Vermillion rebound.�

She added that the community first must decide what it wants to achieve. Her words were echoed by Cip Jungberg of the US Department of Commerce�s Economic Development Administration.

�EDA has a number of programs available to assist communities such as Vermillion, but the first thing that needs to be done is determine what direction you want to take,� said Jungberg, who has worked with Yankton during the Gurney Seed & Nursery closing, Lead after Homestake Gold Mine announced its shut down, and Huron when Dakota Pork closed.

Jungberg said EDA can help with federal monies in several ways, including strategic planning, technical assistance, construction, land acquisition and infrastructure development.

�Hopefully we can come in and share some of the burden that�s associated with this type of employee dislocation,� he said. �But it�s really an individual thing. Each community reacts differently. I would hope there has been some thought as to what direction you want to take in how to provide opportunities for the people who won�t be receiving a paycheck anymore. What projects do you want? What is your strategy and how will you implement the solution?�

Yankton, during the Gurney�s crisis, had a two-fold strategy worked out, part of which EDA could help with to address the dislocated workers, Jungberg said. EDA�s role in the Homestake situation has been to assist Lawrence County in developing a revolving loan fund to help people stay in the community to start their own businesses. In Huron, EDA provided help for industrial park improvements.

Jungberg also reminded the audience that there is competition for federal dollars, but the Vermillion area fits into certain eligibility requirements, including per capita income.

�Data shows that the per capita income in Clay County is 80 percent or less than the national average,� he said. �And that fits into eligibility.�

It is important, Jungberg added, that Vermillion seek advice from its neighbors � including Yankton.

�I recommend that you look into what�s happening down the road where they�re going through a similar situation,� he said. �There are lots of lessons there and words of advice, which I wouldn�t totally discount. In a situation like this, there is valuable experience there.�

Richard Benda, a regional representative of the Governor�s Office of Economic Development, agreed.

�You need to look around at other communities with the same kind of strife,� he said.

Benda also emphasized Vermillion�s need to have a plan.

�The community needs to decide on a long-term solution,� he said. �It�s not for us to tell you what to do, but if we have information from you, we can facilitate what you want to go after. We will work with you and help you bring things to the table.�

Jaci Benjamin, manager of the SD One-Stop Career Center, noted that her agency has already been working with Gateway employees affected by the company�s layoffs. She reminded the audience that the area has a strong labor pool, which can be used as an advantage in attracting economic development.

�This can present an opportunity for Vermillion, but we�re not sure what the community wants to do,� Benjamin said. �We do know, however, that we want to be a player in this.�

Kate Getty, also from the SD One-Stop Career Center, outlined several of its programs designed to help displaced employees in finding new jobs. Assistance with on-the-job training, support services and schooling are among the programs available, she said. Getty also encouraged business owners in the audience to consider hiring employees that are utilizing the career center.

�Let me know if you are interested in having on-the-job training in your place of employment,� she said. �We definitely have a labor pool and we�re working to find the right jobs for them.�

Ironically, the Gateway layoffs represent a way of initiating economic development into the Vermillion area, Benjamin said, adding that a positive outlook is necessary.

�We need to stay positive for these people,� she said. �They are going through a devastating situation in their life time and we have to stay positive. Let them know you�re doing everything you can do for them.�

Utilizing the career center is one way to accomplish this, Benjamin added.

�It�s like the movie Field of Dreams. ?If you build it, they will come.� We have people here who need jobs and we�ll send them to you,� she said.

City Councilman Roger Kozak was among the estimated 30 people to attend the meeting. He spoke of the community�s need to view the Gateway crisis as an opportunity.

�This is a challenge, but we need to turn the challenge into opportunity for the people of Vermillion,� Kozak said.

Radigan added that a community effort is necessary in accomplishing potential economic development and employment opportunities.

�We have to tackle this together,� he said. �I have a lot of faith in Vermillion�s people and feel confident that if we get united on this thing, we will come up with some answers.�

Members of the boards of the Vermillion Development Company and Chamber of Commerce planned to meet Wednesday, Feb. 7 to �charter a course to follow,� Radigan added.

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