January 25, 2012 12:55:00 PM
By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
MOBERLY, Mo. -- After 19 years running state unemployment offices across northern Missouri, Steve Moore can rattle off the names of shuttered factories in this old railroad town with ease.
There's Matcor Automotive, a parts manufacturer that at its peak employed 300 workers but closed in June 2010 in response to declining production by General Motors. Textbook publisher Scholastic Inc. is closing its Moberly packaging center, costing the town another 100 jobs.
Then there's the biggest blow of all: the failed promises of Mamtek U.S. Inc., a Chinese-owned artificial sweetener factory offered about $17 million in state tax incentives and $39 million of local bonds that went belly up in 2011 when the company couldn't make the bond payments. More than 600 promised jobs went up in smoke, with the deal now facing scrutiny by Missouri lawmakers and a pair of investigations by the state's attorney general and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
"There was a lot of anticipation, and then a lot of disappointment," Moore said. "Let's be honest. Everybody had hoped that something was going to come out of it."
As President Barack Obama again pledged to repair the American economy in his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night, some Moberly residents chalked up his pronouncements as just more rosy rhetoric by a politician -- not unlike the July 2010 day when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and former Gov. Bob Holden came to the town of nearly 14,000 and hailed the Mamtek project's potential.
Others blamed an intractable Congress for not working more closely with the president to lift the country's economy. Still more held out hope that manufacturing companies lured by the region's low cost-of-living and central location would once again seek out Moberly, a 136-year-old railroad hub that became known as the Magic City in the late 19th century for its seemingly overnight emergence on once-empty prairie.
"We got a promise that he didn't keep," said business owner Diane Harlan. "He promised our economy was going to be better, and it's not. In this small community, we were under the false hope that everything was going to be OK, and it's not."
Harlan spent seven years as executive director of Main Street Moberly, which represents downtown business owners, before opening the Darn It Yarn store seven months ago after the business group cut her full-time job to 20 hours a week. She voted for John McCain in 2008 but hasn't yet made up her mind about the 2012 election.
While vacant storefronts dot downtown Moberly, Harlan said her business has succeeded beyond expectations, allowing her to drop that part-time job starting next week. A handful of similar small businesses have sprouted nearby, from a sewing shop to a secondhand furniture store.
"People are finally figuring out, we can't depend on our leader to get us out of something that we've created," she said. "We've got to go back to the grassroots. More self-sufficiency, doing things on our own, teaching our children, instead of depending on a man sitting in a white castle to take care of us and make things right."
David Gaines, a vice president with the Moberly Area Economic Development Commission, is among the local officials who helped court Mamtek in a deal given the code name "Project Sugar" before it was publicly disclosed. Count him among those looking for more leadership from those in the audience at Tuesday night's speech.
"It's not so much what he says but what they do," Gaines said, referring to Congress. "They need to quit talking and do something.
"That's what is holding consumer confidence down, is the inability of Congress on both sides of the aisle to do what the people elected them to do," he added.
After the speech, Gaines said he was heartened to hear the president urge lawmakers to work together, not against one another.
"I do like the fact that he said it's time to stop the divisiveness between the two parties," Gaines said. "If they set the right tone, everyone will follow along. If they don't, the nation will just drift."
Political affiliation aside, Moberly residents interviewed Tuesday tended to agree that improving the economy and creating more local jobs are the most important issues facing their community and the country. Look no further than a commuter parking lot along U.S. 63 packed with cars while their owners work 35 miles south in the college town of Columbia. Moberly, in turn, attracts workers from dozens of surrounding rural towns.
"Folks are regularly commuting 40 or 50 or 60 miles to go to work every day," Gaines said. "When we share that with the folks we talk to in Atlanta and Chicago and LA, they are quite amazed that people are willing to commute that far for a good job. But they have to."
Elsewhere in Moberly, Obama's speech was met with disinterest, if not outright scorn. At Nelly's Someplace Else restaurant, dozens of Republicans filed past a pair of televisions showing the president's address as the monthly meeting of the Randolph Area Pachyderms Club. Few stopped to listen, though some jeered as they walked past.
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