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$14 million legislative aid package aims to help Windom amid planned closure of HyLife pork plant

Most of the money is aimed at one stubborn issue plaguing cities across Greater Minnesota: workforce housing. And the aid got wrapped up in debate over helping Minneapolis rebuild in the wake of riots after the murder of George Floyd.

The HyLife plant in Windom, Minnesota.
The HyLife plant in Windom, Minnesota.

Editor’s note: This story was updated after multiple news outlets reported Friday, after the article was published, that an Iowa company has emerged as a potential buyer for the HyLife plant.

Before HyLife Foods said in April that it planned to close its large pork processing plant in the southwestern Minnesota city of Windom, the city was on track to build something desperately needed and quite rare in many rural areas: workforce housing.

Private developers had the HyLife plant in mind when building 60 units that could house up to 240 people, said Tiffany Lamb, executive director of the city’s economic development authority.

But that project faced a sudden and unexpected obstacle as the plant declared bankruptcy, threatening the jobs for more than 1,000 people, many of them immigrant workers on temporary H-2B visas. Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said those developers were concerned about being able to keep financing with the looming departure.

“It puts them in a precarious position,” Lamb said of the housing developers.

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That’s why state lawmakers this year approved a $14 million aid package, most of the money aimed at ensuring the completion of the workforce housing development. About $10 million is for that project.

Mid-morning Friday, HyLife announced a potential sale, multiple news outlets reported, to a prospective buyer that does not plan to retain the 1,000 workers.

Even with a prospective sale, that the Legislature would put together such a funding package underscores the importance of workforce housing in areas throughout Greater Minnesota. Housing has been a “consistent problem” in many rural areas when industry tries to grow, Lamb said. And the housing is significant enough to help attract a potential new buyer for the HyLife facility, she said.

Tiffany Lamb
Tiffany Lamb
It’s critical “for a purchaser to know that infrastructure is in place and they will not run into the issue of finding housing like you would in so many communities the size of Windom,” Lamb said.

That’s not all legislators approved money for. Another $2 million from the state was earmarked to repay loans issued to the city from Minnesota’s Public Facilities Authority for wastewater improvements tied to the processing plant. Another $1 million was for the city to find and recruit a buyer for the HyLife plant.

And finally, another $1 million will flow to the Windom School District to make up the difference in funding for having fewer students this year than expected due to the HyLife closure.

The law approving aid for Windom does say money for the housing development and wastewater infrastructure depends on whether the plant is sold.

Meanwhile, many non-citizen workers on the temporary visas must find work elsewhere or soon leave the country.

Gov. Tim Walz said on Wednesday that state help for those immigrants is “a tough one” because it’s more dependent on federal immigration law. But other than what Walz called the “standard package” of unemployment benefits available (including to non-citizen workers authorized to work in the U.S.), the main focus of the Legislature this year for Windom was the $14 million aid package.

Requested by Weber, the money made it into a much larger tax package passed by the DFL-controlled Legislature this year. And while there was bipartisan support for the Windom aid, it nevertheless became part of a conversation about old disagreements over the degree to which the Legislature funded emergency aid to help damaged businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul in 2020 after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. At the time, Republicans held a Senate majority in what was a politically divided government.

State Sen. Bill Weber speaking during the Senate Committee on Taxes on May 12.
Screen shot
State Sen. Bill Weber speaking during the Senate Committee on Taxes on May 12.
In a House and Senate conference committee hearing to negotiate the omnibus tax legislation during late May, Rep. Aisha Gomez, a DFLer from Minneapolis who chairs the House Taxes Committee, responded to a question from Weber about the flow of new money to Minneapolis by saying when there’s a disaster in part of the state, the Legislature “steps up because we rise and fall together.”

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“If there is something terrible happening in a community in Minnesota that requires an emergency response, this Legislature generally answers that call,” Gomez said. “We did not answer that call in the summer of 2020 for a lot of different reasons.”

There was fierce debate that year over using certain state disaster aid for rebuilding on Lake Street and other commercial corridors. The Legislature did approve some money for the Twin Cities along with cash for Greater Minnesota.

The Luverne Republican said Wednesday he always expected the Legislature would help businesses damaged through no fault of their own and supported extra aid in the new tax bill even if he had concerns about nonprofit handling of the money. Weber said he does get questions from constituents about supporting riot-damaged areas, and said he disagreed with what he felt was a suggestion from Gomez that money for Windom was a “quid pro quo” for aid to Minneapolis.

“As a legislator I would expect at some point I will be asked to support provisions that deal with a catastrophe which is really what it was just like many other catastrophes around the state in various purposes,” Weber said during the late-May conference committee hearing. “And I … will have no problem in doing that. To me that’s what ‘One Minnesota’ is about, not necessarily some of the politics that gets generated around that phrase.”