President Obama kicks off his Midwest bus tour at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Monday, where he’ll board the bus for a 45-minute drive down to Cannon Falls, Minn. The town, which lies halfway between the Twin Cities and Rochester, Minnesota’s two largest urban areas, will be the site of his first town hall.
Bolstered by the job security provided by the nearby Mayo Clinic in Rochester and its proximity to the largest population center, Cannon Falls fared relatively will during the recession. Unemployment in Goodhue County hasn’t topped 8 percent in more than a year, and only rose above 9 percent for a brief, two-month uptick in February and March 2009. In the first half of 2011 it had 6.9 percent unemployment, far lower than the national average of 9.1 percent for July.
Part of the good fortune is due to a diversified economy that includes a mix of small industry at a nearby industrial park and smaller retail businesses. The town has managed to avoid the worst of the recession. “We haven’t had any of our businesses do huge layoffs, we haven’t had any closures. Everybody’s kind of holding together,” said Pat Anderson, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. The plants in the industrial park produce a variety of products, including processed meat, gear for hunters, doors, and point-of-purchase store displays, among other things.
The housing and building industries took the worst hit, said Mayor Robby Robinson, who noted that building permits had dropped off “dramatically.” The city also froze pay, but the people planning the budget will reevaluate the decision this year.
Cannon Falls is the only city of the five Obama is visiting that he lost in 2008 – but by a very narrow margin of 49.8 percent to 48.3 percent. The district’s congressman, Republican John Kline, was elected in 2002 and hasn’t faced a serious challenge in the last two elections. Some “Minnesota nice” may be on display in the town Monday, as Robinson said he expected everything to be civil. Not to mention, he’s honored just to have a president visiting the city, period – the last one to do so was Calvin Coolidge, who came to dedicate a memorial to a Civil War general in 1928. As such, people are calling in from all over the state wanting to attend, Robinson said.
“There’s just a lot of excitement around town and people are really in disbelief,” Anderson said.
Just over two more hours on the bus will bring the president to the town of Decorah, nestled in the hills of Northeast Iowa. The visit, says Mayor Don Arendt, is “really a feather in our hat.”
The community has a large Norwegian population, and has the largest museum of Norwegian-American heritage in the country. In true Scandinavian fashion, the Decorahns are focusing on health and fitness, Arendt said. They’re in the process of completing a 12-mile bike trail and “one of the nicest food co-ops in Iowa.” Appropriately, Obama is expected to speak at Seed Savers Exchange, a local business that preserves and distributes heirloom garden seeds.
Decorah lies in the same district as Ames, the home of the Iowa Straw Poll, which took place on Saturday. That means Obama will come rolling in just after a big weekend for the Republican candidates. It’s another divided district, one where George W. Bush only managed narrow wins in 2000 and 2004 but Obama claimed an 8-point lead in 2008. Like Kline in Minnesota, this district's Republican congressman, Tom Latham, is a long-timer, having been first elected in 1994 and facing no serious challenges in recent elections. It helps him that the town leans more conservative than liberal.
As with Cannon Falls, Decorah has fared remarkably well during the recession. Sure, the unemployment rate is up since Obama was elected in 2008 – from the 4.2 percent it was in November 2008. Now Winneshiek County boasts the lowest rate of any that Obama will visit, with 5.9 unemployment in the first half of 2011.
The economy revolves around agriculture, smaller manufacturing, and the nearby Luther College, and the diversification helped them make it through the recession. “We haven’t been hit in one particular industry. We haven’t seen our manufacturers close up,” said Nikki Brevig, director the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
Brevig said she expects people to want to hear about Obama’s plans to protect small businesses, which make up some of the area’s economy. But they may not be as interested in his recent message of blaming the Republicans for the political gridlock in Washington. “It’s time for the whole country to come together instead of arguing over whose fault it is,” Brevig said.