When its major employer closed , the Clark community took its future into its own hands
By Heidi Marttila -Losure, Reporting by Bill Krikac, Clark County Courier
What happens when the major employer in a community—an employer that represents a community’s identity, and that is a significant supporter of community causes—closes its doors?
That’s the situation that Clark, S.D., faced in 2002, when McCain’s, a French fry processing facility, shut down.
In the 1950s and ’60s, vast acres of potatoes were grown in Clark. In 1969, some of the growers of those potatoes started the plant that eventually became McCain’s as a way to add value to their product by making frozen French fries and shipping them via freezer rail cars. Over the years, the business changed hands and grew; Clark’s appreciation for and reliance on the stability that McCain’s provided also grew. The number of potato growers in the county reached 38 at one point. Clark called itself the Potato Capital of South Dakota, and held its Potato Days festival each year, complete with mashed potato wrestling.
Clark residents watched as other rural towns around them felt economic strain, but the general feeling was, “Clark is all right as long as we have McCain’s.”
And then they no longer had McCain’s. A glut in the French fry market led the McCain Foodservice business to close its Clark facility. Over the course of a few months, 120 employees were out of a job.
“It was definitely a blow to the community,” said Les Solberg, who had been elected mayor of Clark not long before McCain’s closed.
He’s now passed on that title but is still active in Clark’s economic development efforts.
So how did the Potato Capital respond to the loss of a key part of their potato identity?
Community leaders at first tried to find another business to take over the plant—ideally something that could employ as many people. Dave Anderson, community development representative for the S.D. Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said that Clark had two advantages in that search: a ready facility and trained workers.
When a business calls looking for a location in South Dakota, “absolutely one of the key determiners is the availability of a suitable building,” Anderson said.
It’s that “suitable” word that proved difficult for Clark. The plant had not been upgraded in many years, and no prospective buyers wanted to commit the millions it would take to do that.
“We ended up selling it for a dollar,” Solberg said.
The plant is now home to Nature’s Deli, which makes chicken dog treats. The business is doing well, but with a workforce of just a fraction of what was employed by McCain’s. Few to no locals want to do that work, so the 25 employees there are from Puerto Rico, Solberg said.
So, if Clark residents weren’t going to be able to look to another big plant from elsewhere to move in and provide their salvation, they were going to have to save themselves.
And, little by little, that’s what they’ve done: From sunflower seeds to jerky, from livestock trailers to hunting tours, Clark residents have figured out ways to build their own businesses and help the community grow.
In the aftermath of McCain’s closing, the town was lucky enough not to lose many families; for many of the workers, retiring was an option. (Clark is notable among area small towns in that health care, assisted living and nursing home facilities are all located in the community, so there is no need to leave the community upon retirement.)
The town’s population has hovered around 1,100 in the last decade, and even had a nice bump up in 2010. The growth of businesses like the ones that follow have contributed to that population increase. Several have had family members move to the area to work in the family business.
The Clark Industrial Development Corporation also plays a key role in this success. They worked to develop the industrial park on the east side of town, which houses several of Clark’s new businesses.
They are constantly looking for new opportunities, said Solberg, who is a key player in the corporation.
“I keep my pen ready to sign on the dotted line,” Solberg said.
Clark still has its Potato Days celebration. (There’s no reason to give up on mashed potato wrestling!) But the festival has become a way to honor Clark’s past. For its future, Clark aims to build on its own ingenuity and hard work.
Oak Tree Lodge
Owner Bill Makens challenged an artist whose work he liked to re-create the Oak Tree Lodge logo onto the floor, which the artist did, with exquisite detail. All of the colors are from natural wood—even the turquoise and green.
“They come from all over the world,” Makens said.
That could just as well be said for other things at Oak Tree Lodge: The wide variety of animal mounts on the walls (including trophies from several continents) as well as the customers who stay there.
Makens and his family, including sons Michael and James, have worked to turn Oak Tree Lodge into a world-class destination. They have been recognized by Cabela’s as a five-star destination, and Cabela’s rewards its top customers with hunting excursions at Oak Tree.
Oak Tree employs people in the community in addition to providing a way for the sixth generation of Makens’ family to make a living on the land.
“We are trying to be an asset to the community,” Makens said.
Oak Tree is also a working farm, and soon to be a wind energy producer, in addition to being a hunting destination. Makens said for them, the keyword is balance: Taking the prairie coteau, “what the good Lord has given us,” and doing what they can to ensure that it provides for the wildlife that also depends on it as well as for its human inhabitants.
“It’s hard to come out here and not become in love with the land,” Makens said.
If you’d like a job in Clark, Brenda Stokes might have something available at Duralite Trailers, but she has some ground rules: “I don’t do lazy, and I don’t do late,” she said.
That no-nonsense attitude at the helm seems to have worked well for Duralite. The company counts as a feather in its cap the fact that champion bull rider Scott Schiffner endorses their trailers by his choice, Stokes said. The all-aluminum trailers are sold all over the country and beyond.
“My biggest dealer network is in Canada,” Stokes said. “So about 60 to 70 percent of my trailers cross the border.”
The company was started in the 1980s in Watertown. Stokes and her husband, Duane, bought the business and moved it to Clark in 2004. They sold the business in 2007, but Brenda said she was pretty much sold with the business and stayed on as manager.
Stokes said she used travel a lot for a previous job, but she likes living in Clark.
“I have a different perspective. It doesn’t matter how big your town is—your life is just about the same,” Stokes said, arguing that most of us live our lives in the same small world of friends, work and social life, no matter how big the community is that we live in. She just chooses to live with a lot fewer other people around.
“I’m a firm believer that your life is what you make of it,” no matter where you live, she said.
Wal-Mart trucks are a common sight at the Dakota Style sunflower seed packaging facility on U.S. Highway 212, picking up Dakota Style sunflower seeds for distribution all over the country.
The sunflower seed business has taken off for Dakota Style, which started manufacturing potato chips in 1985. Kevin Dandurand purchased the business in 1998, and his son, Riley, is now general manager. The chip business is still going strong, with new flavors for added variety, but the sunflower seed market is growing exponentially.
Pauline Anderson, who has worked for Dakota Style since 1987, showed how the seeds come into Clark from the processing facility in Crookston, Minn., in massive totes. The seeds are let down from those totes into a system similar to a grain vacuum, which sucks the seeds into the packaging machine. So much of the process is automated that human hands are needed only at a few key points in the process (and to make sure the machines are doing their jobs).
“They are making things so much easier for everybody,” Anderson said.
Nevertheless, eight employees work at the facility. The sunflower packaging process has been at the location in the industrial park for a little more than a year, and they are already feeling the need to expand again. They could manage bigger orders if they had a little more room to store them, Pauline explained.
But first things first: An office renovation project is also in process. When that is finished, office employees from the original Dakota Style plant will move to the industrial park location as well.
Anderson said she loves the new building. “It’s so nice and light,” she said, and the in-floor radiant heat “is wonderful.”
Catch a Falling Star
Janell Holzworth planned to retire when she moved to Clark.
“But I can’t do that,” she said with a smile.
She instead runs an eclectic store called Catch a Falling Star, filled with second-hand and repurposed items. She sews new items as well as upcycles old ones with new fabric.
“I think small towns and small shops have a great deal to offer people,” Holsworth said. “But people don’t know how to shop in them anymore… A big-box store—that’s not a shopping experience.”
The small stores instead offer a greater level of personal service, she said.
Holzworth grew up in Watertown, then after a divorce wanted to get to a place that was big and busy. She chose Phoenix.
“Ugh. I hated it,” she said. “The small town girl in me came out real fast.”
She tried a smaller town in Arizona before deciding the time had come to move back to South Dakota. She chose Clark because it was close to her parents in Watertown and seemed to be the right size.
“Really and truly, everybody here does care for one another,” she said. “They watch out for you.”
Paul Streff was teaching at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown when he tried to convince some of his students and former students to set up shop in Clark.
“And I talked myself into it,” Streff said. “I got a hold of Les (Solberg) and his group, and here we are today.”
Streff named P4 in honor of his four children. The oldest will be a senior in high school now—“and she knows all about what’s going on here,” Streff said.
The items the manufacturing business makes run the gamut: gear casings, specialty bolts, computer parts and replacement parts for treadmills, for starters. P4 employs three full-time employees plus some part-time help.
In the afternoons, another crew shows up, as a class of Clark High School students travels to P4 to get an introduction to the manufacturing trade.
The arrangement works out well for all concerned: Streff gets to live up to his calling to teach (and still be on hand to answer the phone if he needs to), the students don’t need to travel far for real-world training, and the steady income helps Streff weather the inevitable peaks and valleys of demand (so he’s never had to lay anyone off).
“It’s been a win-win,” Streff said.
Dakota Butcher and Clark Liquor
Randy Gruenwald might be wearing his neatly pressed dress shirt and pants for his work at Dacotah Bank, but there’s no hesitation in his step has he gives a tour of the back rooms of Dakota Butcher—rooms where, as the old saying goes, the sausage is made (including all the steps that come before that). He’s clearly proud to show what he and the rest of the crew at Dakota Butcher have accomplished in the four years that he and his wife, Karen, have had ownership of the business.
“Initially (balancing work at the bank and butcher shop) was very difficult, because I had to train everybody,” Gruenwald said.
But now that a good crew is trained into their jobs, he is around at the beginning and end of the day to answer questions and on Saturdays and Sundays as needed.
“It’s become a lot easier, with very good people,” Gruenwald said. “They really care about the job. They really care about the business… that makes it a lot easier.”
Karen Gruenwald and John Hartmann are co-managers of the business. Randy Gruenwald is also pleased that his son and his daughter-in-law joined the business in the last year. They are one of several families that have relocated to Clark to work at the business.
Combining the liquor store and butcher shop was a way for both businesses to reduce overhead, Gruenwald said. The combination has worked well: People come in for steaks and grab some wine, or come in for beer and pick up some jerky. A planned renovation that will include gathering space for wine tastings or cooking demonstrations should be finished by next hunting season, he said.
We’re real happy with all the people in the community and how they support us,” Gruenwald said, including surrounding communities in that statement as well. “We couldn’t be doing as well as we are without them.”