Editor’s note: This is the second article in a 10-part series. Part three will publish Sunday, May 26.
MEXICO — Sitting on the southeast side of Mexico, the A.P. Green brick factory looms like a ghost.
Cracked and peeling white paint covers the outside of the plant's slender office buildings. Farther removed from Business 54 — Green Boulevard — weeds sprout from the five industrial kilns, looking more like earthen mounds than brick-domed furnaces. In other parts of the factory, signs reading "high density casting" and "CAUTION SAFETY GLASSES WITH SIDE SHIELDS MUST BE WORN IN THIS AREA" make it appear as though humans inhabited this barren world just days ago.
"You can't talk to anyone on the street that hasn't either worked in the brick plant or had relatives that worked there," said Dana Keller, executive director of the Mexico Chamber of Commerce. "It had a tremendous impact on the community, but I feel like as a community we've moved on."
With a population of around 11,500, Mexico grew in tandem with the brick factory, using its might to turn the town into a small industrial powerhouse. In 1910, before the A.P. Green Fire Brick Co. was established, the population was just under 6,000. By 1930, the town was 8,290 and in 1950, it was 11,623, where it has remained, give or take 1,000, for the past 70 years.
Today, Mexico stands as one of the few Midwestern industrial towns which weaned itself off its largest manufacturer as it transitioned into the modern manufacturing economy. After losing 1,200 manufacturing jobs from 1998 to 2003 as the brick factory shut down, Audrain County maintained about 2,000 manufacturing workers, even in the worst of times.
Other towns across Central Missouri have not been as fortunate. Many saw manufacturers close during the Great Recession because of financial distress or because companies relocated to other countries. Even for communities which managed to hold onto their best jobs, towns across central Missouri have trouble holding onto young people.
Over the past nine months, GateHouse Media gathered statistics and conducted interviews about every aspect of life in eight counties of Central Missouri – Audrain, Boone, Callaway, Cole, Cooper, Howard, Moniteau and Randolph – and how things have changed over the past 20 to 50 years. For jobs, the results showed a clear divide between economic boom times in Boone County, where the workforce has expanded, while the available labor pool has contracted in the seven neighboring counties.
While diminished, manufacturing continues to be the best paying sector of the economy in most counties, save for the small federal workforce.
The plant's namesake A.P. Green visited a small brick factory in Mexico, Missouri in the early 1900s while working for for a St. Louis brick company. When the owner of that company declined to build around a prized vein of clay, Green purchased the factory around 1910, according to the State Historical Society of Missouri.
During its heyday, A.P. Green employed 2,000 people. By the time the factory closed the first time in 2002, it employed just 200 people.
Effects still linger from the loss. Average weekly wages for all workers in Audrain County fell from 1998 to 2002 and the county is the only one in the region where inflation-adjusted wages have fallen over the past 20 years.
From 2010 to 2013, Mid-America brick used a combination of state and local tax credits and incentives to re-open the factory. At the time the factory employed 48 people.
By the time the factory closed for a second time, Mexico already transitioned away from its previous role in the community, Keller said.
"We were sad," she said. "We hoped that would be rejuvenated, but there wasn't a great number of people that were unemployed because of it."
Like Mexico, relics of Boonville's industrial past litter the landscape. Near the Missouri River just west of downtown, the old Selwyn Shoe Company building, now converted to apartments, looms over a green MKT Railroad caboose outside the town's old train station, now the local trailhead on the Katy Trail.
About a mile from the shoe factory, there is a shuttered Hostess factory that had many names as it made bread for decades.
The bakery closed in 2012, and though economic leaders were told it would re-open when the company emerged from bankruptcy, the building still sits. Today one of three murals still facing Main Street has the names of the building's bakeries over the decades etched under a wheat stalk. Two adjacent murals depict a steamboat sailing up the Missouri River and the Battle of Boonville during the Civil War.
"It smelled like bread all the time, fresh baked bread," said Laura Wax, Boonville Chamber of Commerce executive director. "Downtown just smelled great, and now we really miss that."
Boonville grew up on the river and railroads but there is no port and the Union Pacific doesn't stop in the town of about 8,400 residents. As the railroad industry declined after World War II, Boonville reinvented itself as a manufacturing town
Mayor Ned Beach said the town's manufacturing base began to erode in the 1990s when World Trade Organization policies led local textile manufacturers to move their operations overseas to places like Indonesia and China. Later, the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement led component manufacturers to leave town, Beach said.
As the country emerged from the Great Recession, Boonville noticed its biggest changes when most of its remaining manufacturers left town. Modular home manufacturer Fuqua Homes stopped production in May 2011, a victim of the housing crisis years earlier. At its peak in 2006, Fuqua employed 350 people, Beach said.
In January 2012, Hostess filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection. Two private equity groups paid $410 million for the company's assets and re-opened bakeries in Indiana and Illinois in 2013, according to The Associated Press.
Boonville's factory was not one of the lucky ones to re-open. Largely, the effects of the closure were mitigated because many of Hostess' 80 employees found work at HVAC manufacturer Nordyne, Wax said. Hostess employed about 140 people at its peak, Beach said.
The hammer dropped in 2013 when Nordyne announced it would move its furnace manufacturing lines south to Mexico and leave 200 jobs behind. Nordyne stopped production in Boonville in June 2015 and at its peak employed about 350 people, Beach said.
"From a morale standpoint, it was kicking somebody while they were already down" Wax said.
Most residents affected by the closures still live in the community but now work at jobs in Columbia, Sedalia and other towns, Beach and Wax said.
Now, three of Boonville's largest employers are government entities — Boonville Public Schools, the 1,300 inmate Boonville Correctional Center and city government. The fourth largest, Isle of Capri casino, employs 400 people, according to James Leahy, a spokesman for Isle of Capri parent Eldorado Resorts.
"Holy smokes," Beach said when the casino came up. "From city government standpoint, it's huge."
Increasingly Boonville feels like a bedroom community for commuters to Columbia or a town bolstered by nearby Interstate 70. Beach knows that Boonville is not alone and that small towns across the Midwest had to overhaul their economies as they entered the 21st Century.
"We're blessed to be close to Columbia and we're not a bad drive to Sedalia," Beach said.
Today, just two manufactures remain in Boonville. The largest, Caterpillar, makes rubber products bonded to steel.
Caterpillar then ships these products to other factories worldwide. AR-15 manufacturer CMMG moved from Fayette to Boonville in late 2016 and now employs about 50 people.
Selling a community
Ray McCarty serves as president of Jefferson City trade group Associated Industries of Missouri. As the economy sputtered back to life after the recession, McCarty said manufacturers became plagued by an inability to find quality workers with the skills and work ethic for manufacturing jobs, even as thousands of jobs remained open.
"We have a big disconnect between the number of open jobs and the number of workers we have to fill those jobs," McCarty said. "We have a lot of openings for skilled workers and we can't find enough to fill those jobs."
A May 2018 report from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry found that about 1.6 million Missourians ages 45 to 64 will retire over the next 20 years. Between 1990 and 2016, the report found, the state's population of people over age 45 grew by 52 percent, but the population of people younger than 45 grew by just 2 percent.
From 2016 to 2026, the pool of workers ages 24 to 44 is expected to grow at 4.4 percent nationally and 2.5 percent statewide. Of the eight Mid-Missouri counties, only Boone county's percentage of workers ages 24 to 44 will grow faster than the national average, according to the report.
Randolph, Audrain and Callaway counties will see the number of workers ages 24 to 44 grow at lower rates than the Missouri average. Cole, Moniteau, Cooper and Howard counties will loose workers ages 24 to 44, according to the report.
Keeping young people at home or giving them a reason to return after higher education is the aim of economic leaders across Mid-Missouri, who said they market their communities to young people by highlighting their small-town charm. Each small city offers young people that love rural lifestyles a chance to live close to home and a stone's throw from the countryside; even if they offer less flair than nearby Columbia, Kansas City, St. Louis or coastal metropolises
Wax, from the Boonville chamber, said active community members are more likely to come back and be active in their communities.
"If you have a vested interest in your community, then you are going to be more likely to come back," she said.
Michael Bugalski, president of Moberly Area Economic Development, said housing is important to young people. Moberly's housing stock is old, so the agency is working on a new housing plan for the city. His group is also leading a revitalization of downtown Moberly so people can live and work downtown without driving a car.
"Most people 20 years ago found a job, then moved where the job was," Bugalski said. "Now people pick a city and find a job when they're there."
Hundreds of students attended a career fair at Mexico High School on Feb. 27. In all, 56 companies attended the event, looking for likely employees. Some, like SSM Health, looked for highly-skilled workers. Other manufacturers and temp services looked for entry-level employees.
Mexico High School seniors Jacy Graham and Matthew Sauce want to head down opposite career paths. In the fall Graham will head to Missouri S&T in Rolla and pursue a degree in electrical engineering and a minor in computer engineering.
Graham's father owned IT network management firm Innovative Technology Services in Mexico. After he graduates from Missouri S&T, Graham can see himself working as an electrical lineman or owning a computer repair shop.
Sauce wants to bypass college and train to be a certified welding inspector. Apprenticeship programs and courses through technical colleges exist to train him as he gets further into the field, Sauce said.
"I know exactly what I need to do," Sauce said. "I know exactly where I need to go and I can go straight to my goal."
Neither Sauce or Graham want to stay in Mexico.
Opportunities for electrical and computer engineers exist in Mexico, but can be fleeting, Graham said. As he prepares to head off for college, Graham acknowledged that he feels residents and businesses coalesce in rural towns in ways they do not in bigger cities.
"They're just very limited and you have to know where to look," Graham said of jobs in his prospective field. "I feel like it might be good to go to a bigger city and get the experience of living in that kind of environment to know which I prefer."
Sauce knows manufacturers like Spartan need welders, but he does not want to work for a manufacturer. He knows manufacturing jobs offer solid salaries, but not the excitement and advancement opportunities he wants.
"It doesn't sound like a career for me," Sauce said. "It just sounds like the same thing day after day after day."
Rachel Kristofferson, a junior, plans to attend the University of Missouri and major in nursing. Eventually she wants to become a neonatal intensive care unit nurse.
SSM St. Mary's Hospital employs 486 people and is the largest employer in Mexico, according to the Mexico Chamber of Commerce. But it lacks services available at bigger hospitals in Columbia and in January stopped offering childbirth services when it closed the Women's and Children's Services department.
Kristoffarson wants to stay in Mexico after she graduates, but feels like she needs to move to a bigger hospital that has a NICU or pediatric department.
The future of the hospital also remains unclear because of the attempt by University of Missouri Health Care to buy the hospital and another in Jefferson City from SSM Health.
"I really love a small town atmosphere, so most likely I'd want to live in a small town, maybe even Mexico, then commute to work," Kristoffarson said.
Oliver, from the firebrick museum, worked at the A.P. Green factory for 20 years before the company laid him off in 1991. A.P. Green and National Refractories both had research centers and employed hundreds of people in office jobs, Oliver said. Even as Mexico transitioned into the new economy, white-collar office jobs largely left the city, he said.
"There were decades going back to the 1920s when both corporate headquarters were here," Oliver said. "We really do not have middle management (jobs) now."
Manufacturing in the capital
For a city of about 43,000 people, Jefferson City has plenty of office jobs. The large lobbying and legal industry makes the service sector the second-best paying in the region, with an average wage in 2017 of $741 a week.
Many of those office jobs are in state government, which employed 15,521 people in 2017, according to the most recent annual averages from the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. Their average wage of in 2017 was $814, helping Cole County to the second-best overall pay in the region.
Still, in many ways the small city resembles a manufacturing town. When visitors from the north travel to Jefferson City on U.S. 63, the Missouri State Capitol looms across the Missouri River.
As they enter the outskirts of city limits, the red facade and signage of the ABB factory greets them first. Seven manufacturers including Scholastic, Quaker Windows and Doors, and Command Web Offset Printing employed 4,467 people in the Jefferson City area, according to the Jefferson City Chamber of Commerce. ABB alone employs 865 people, according to the chamber.
Last December, the factory's future grew uncertain when Japanese tech conglomerate Hitachi purchased ABB's electrical transformer division. Hitachi assured local leaders they plan to keep the factory open, but local officials still have their guard up.
Reuters reported ABB sold the electrical transformer division because it was ABB's least profitable business. In a news release at the time, Hitachi committed to strengthening the business.
"Anytime a local company is merged with a global company, there's always the risk they could increase or decrease production," said Roger Fischer, Callaway County Western District commissioner. "(Hitachi) assured us they do not plan on doing anything at that site."
There is a group in central Missouri seeking to revive freight traffic on the Missouri River. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for maintaining a navigable channel 300 feet wide and nine feet deep from Sioux City to the Mississippi River, there are virtually no barges operating on the river.
Fischer and eight other members of the Callaway County, Cole County and Jefferson City community sit on the Heartland Port Board of Commissioners. Formed last fall, the board is leading the new Heartland Port Authority through its earliest days as it seeks funding to build a Missouri River Port in Jefferson City.
One of the project's most ardent backers, Fischer believes the project could change the region's fortunes.
Fulton State Hospital employs the most people in Callaway County with 1,150 employees, according to the Callaway Chamber of Commerce. Ameren Missouri's Callaway Nuclear Energy Center employs the second most with 923. ABB sits as the county's third-largest employer.
An economic impact report released by the chamber in June estimated that across Boone, Cole, Callaway and Osage counties, the port could create 4,385 jobs over its 25-year life. Of those, 2,605 jobs could be created directly and another 1,790 could be created indirectly. Freight-dependent jobs would benefit the most.
Still, many of the jobs that could be created are in low-paying retail and restaurant industries. In all, 655 retail jobs and 260 food-service industry jobs would be created over the port's life, the economic impact report found. Fischer declined to talk at length about the jobs estimates, saying those questions are best left to economic developers.
"We could have entire industries based around what we can import now," Fischer said. "And be competitive with the people who live on the east and west coast."
Other communities in central Missouri have learned what happens when big proposals turn sour.
In July 2010 then Gov. Jay Nixon and Mamtek CEO Bruce Cole announced plans to build an artificial sweetener factory in Moberly. They sold the project as one that would create 600 jobs and help dig the city out of an unemployment hole. Moberly, through its Industrial Development Authority, sold $39 million in bonds through underwriter Morgan Keegan.
The rest is history.
Mamtek missed a payment in August 2011. Cole was arrested and charged with one felony count of theft and four felony counts of securities fraud in September 2012.
Two years later he plead guilty to one count of theft and two counts of securities fraud, and that November he was sentenced to seven years in prison. Cole was released on parole in June.
Standard & Poor's downgraded the city's credit rating from A-, or investment grade, to CC, a more speculative grade. Only last year did S&P raise the city's credit rating back to investment grade.
Even all these years later, the Mamtek wound still feels fresh to Moberly residents.
Michael Bugalski, president of Moberly Area Economic Development, assumed the role of interim president after Corey Mehaffy, a key player in the Mamtek saga, left in December. The group named Bugalski president in mid-March.
Bugalski declined to answer questions about Mamtek, saying work on the project was completed before he moved to Moberly more than two years ago.
"We've always been very careful since I've been here," Bugalski said. "We go through very strict processes so as long as I've been here, that's always been our policy."
Small projects can have their problems as well. Last March the Boonville City Council listened to residents who said CMMG, which makes AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, did not fulfill a promise to create 55 jobs after it moved from Fayette in 2016.
In 2017, CMMG asked Boonville's Industrial Development Authority to amend the terms of a $200,000 forgivable loan. CMMG asked the city to change job requirements from 55 to 51 and asked that shareholders and executives be included in the count.
CMMG paid some proceeds back to the IDA, but had all of the loan forgiven this year because they met the requirements of the contract, the Boonville, Beach, said.
Moving the CMMG jobs from Fayette to Boonville did nothing to help the state or regional economy, said Sarah Low, a rural economist with the University of Missouri.
"Poaching from your neighbor doesn’t seem to work, and things like the Amazon relocation, this is a zero-sum game at the U.S. level for the U.S. economy and if you are trying to poach from other towns in Missouri, it doesn’t help the Missouri economy," she said.
Beach bristled at the idea that Boonville took the jobs from Fayette.
Boonville met the utility and space needs of CMMG, Beach said.
"What we had gave them an opportunity to do what they wanted to do, and keep the majority of employees," he said. "We weren’t stealing anything."
Looking toward the future
At one point two fire brick factories held together the backbone of Mexico's economy. Now a new giant is stepping in to fill the void left by the brick factories.
Spartan Light Metal Products' 240,000-square-foot facility on the edge of Mexico embodies what Keller and other economic leaders want manufacturing to become in the new economy.
Gone are rudimentary bricks made by hand. Instead are robots working in tandem with humans.
Spartan employs 380 people and cannot find enough workers. By the end of the year, Spartan will employ between 420 and 580 people, said Ted Waltemate, Spartan Light Metal Products' vice president of operations.
The company's Mexico factory produces parts for automobile makers including Honda and Toyota. In September, Spartan also announced plans to add 100 jobs over the next five years and build a separate 135,000-square-foot die-cast manufacturing facility behind the existing factory.
Mexico's unemployment rate fell to 2.1 percent in November, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Over the last 20 years, only between October and December of 2000 did Mexico's unemployment rate fall lower.
Between 1998 and 2017, among the eight Mid-Missouri counties, only Howard County and Boone County saw their labor forces increase, according to a Tribune analysis. Howard County saw an increase of 154 people in its labor force over that time. Boone County saw its labor force increase by 12,807 people. Audrain County saw its labor force shrink by 2,292 people.
So far, labor shortages have not caused Spartan to pump the breaks on its expansion plans in Mexico. The company stepped up recruiting efforts, Waltemate said.
"I'm not sure it's unique to us, or to a rural area," Waltemate said. "City manufacturers see similar things, they just have a bigger pool to pull from."
Finding a home
Mexico feels large compared to other towns in this part of central Missouri. Vern Williams said his family found a home here he never plans to leave.
A New Orleans native, Williams found his way to Mexico after Hurricane Katrina. Most days as a melt technician at Spartan, Williams removes harmful sludge from metal, among other things.
Die Caster Matt White loads 20-pound aluminum ingots into a furnace that melts metal used in differential side cases for Honda and Acura cars. As Williams loaded an ingot into a furnace, heat radiated outward as a loud buzz hummed throughout the factory.
The work can be dangerous, but robots now perform the most dangerous tasks, like scooping ladles full of metal into molds. This frees workers like Williams and White to do other things.
Most weeks Williams and White work six to seven days with plenty of overtime. Williams' wife and brother-in-law also work at the factory.
Recently the second-oldest of Williams five kids, also named Vern, started a job at Spartan. With life going well and the economy strong, Williams feels Mexico will provide his four other kids with plenty of opportunities.
"When I came here everybody was welcoming," Williams said. "I raised my kids here."
Towns that rely on manufacturing believe the industry provides good-paying jobs for hard-working residents. Even as the economy changes and evolves, Waltemate, from Spartan Light Metal Products, sees manufacturing as the foundation of small-town economies.
Service industries are replacing or eliminating many jobs in small towns, he acknowledged, but manufacturing will always maintain a place in small towns because service industries can only do so many things for economies, Waltemate said.
"If small towns aren't making something, not producing anything, we're not going to thrive," he said.