On Wednesday, the president heads to Atkinson and Alpha, two tiny towns on the Illinois prairie. The area “has a Norman Rockwell-type feel,” said Brian DeJohn, director of the chamber of commerce in nearby Geneseo. Think agriculture, small businesses, and towns that still have a noon whistle. Atkinson’s grocery store has been owned by the same family for over 70 years.
Alpha, with a population of 671, is officially designated a "village"; the more substantial Atkinson has 971 residents. Rep. Bobby Schilling represents Alpha in Congress, while Rep. Randy Hultgren represents Atkinson. The two Republicans rode tea-party support to defeat Democratic incumbents in 2010. Obama carried both districts in 2008, but the 14th went to Bush in both 2000 and 2004.
“Honestly, because we’re agriculture-based, the recession hasn’t hit us very hard,” said Alpha Mayor Marvin Watters, who called National Journal from his day job at the local bank. Buoyed by high crop prices and low exposure to the foreclosure crisis, towns like Alpha and Atkinson are doing just fine. Unemployment in Henry County is 6.9 percent.
Watters said there’s a “big concern with Obamacare” in Alpha, and that he expects his constituents to ask about health care, job creation, and farm subsidies. Corn and ethanol subsidies, Watters said, have helped Alpha weather the recession.
“I myself would like to praise President Obama,” Atkinson Mayor August Junior said. “He has definitely affected Atkinson with the Recovery Act.” A grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid for Atkinson’s new fire hall, and rebates and tax credits for home improvement projects helped De Decker’s Hardware, Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling, the local business where Junior works. “That really helped tide a small business over during a time of need,” Junior said.
Cathy Foes, director of Henry County's tourism bureau, was amazed to hear that Obama was visiting her sleepy area. But “he needs to!” she said. Small towns like those in Henry County are losing population, she said, and the president needs to go out and listen to those often-overlooked communities.
In Alpha, Obama will be speaking at the Country Corner Market, a pick-your-own farm that features an 8-acre corn maze. His Atkinson appearance has not yet been announced, but Junior guessed that the president might make a stop at Wyffels Hybrid, a family-owned hybrid-seed company.
The last president to visit Atkinson, Junior said, was Reagan, who had breakfast at the Cattle Club Café in 1984. The restaurant, on U.S. Highway 6, is now known as Lisa’s Place; no word on whether Obama will be following in the Gipper’s footsteps.