Many residents of a small LaSalle County town are still in shock after news that one of its largest employers will be closing its doors next month.
Long-time Mendota resident Robert Cooper was principal at Mendota High School for 25 years. He says he probably knows more than half of the employees at the town’s R.R. Donnelley plant personally. He says it was a total surprise when the printing giant told the 207 employees there that it would be shutting down the facility May 28th, putting them all out of work. Cooper says he was at the McDonalds next door to the plant on the day of the announcement, March 28th. “People were coming in with tears rolling down their face, and it didn’t take long to figure out what had happened. I feel so sorry for some of these people, because they had no inkling whatsoever this was forthcoming,” he says.
Cooper says besides the personal tragedy for the workers, the absence of the company will leave a tremendous hole in the community. "In the last few years we’ve built a new high school, a new hospital, a new football stadium, and did a lot of things that were done with the help of Donnelley,” Cooper says.
Alta Stroyan works at Sports-N–Stuff, a local sportswear shop. Stroyan says there’s no doubt this will affect the whole community. Like a lot of others, she knows people at the plant. She says her heart goes out to them. And she says some families will get hit especially hard. “There’s a lot of couples, husband and wife, that work there, so their income is gone, and it’s a huge blow,” Stroyan says.
Harold Zink has worked in Mendota for 56 years selling cars. He’s done business with a lot of people who work at Donnelley. He worries about the impact on both the employees and the community. He says the hit on businesses that sell big-ticket items like his will be immediate. “They’re not gonna come walking in there, and say I’ve got a pretty good paycheck, we’re thinking about a raise or something like that you know, and buy a car…that ain’t gonna happen,” Zink says.
Emily McConville is Mendota’s City Clerk and Economic Development Director. She says the effect of the closing will be far-reaching. “Its going to affect everything from sales tax, property tax, even our just state of well being. This has been devastating,” McConville says.
McConville says the city will use whatever means it can to lure new employers. But she says in a down economy, that won’t be easy. “We’re all fighting for jobs right now. So it’s not like we can just go out there and there are people lined up to go in. So we’ve got an uphill battle,” she says.
So what does the company say? A Donnelley employee who didn’t want to give her name said employees had been told not to talk to the media. And Donnelley management is not responding to requests for information, which seems to be standard procedure for the firm. In the past several years, Donnelley has closed a number of plants across the country. The only comments made by the company are to be found in the filings and certified letters of notification it was required by law to provide. In each case, the company cites the drop in demand for printed material as more content and advertising moves to the digital realm.
Mendota’s mayor, David Boelk, has seen that for himself. His family trucking business has hauled Donnelley products for years. He says shipment sizes have been dwindling. “Where we would ship a capacity trailer to Atlanta for the Atlanta magazine, or the Cincinnati magazine, those shipments over the last five years or so have been cut in half,” Boelk says. But Boelk says that didn’t make it any less of a shock when the closing was announced. And he fumes about the lack of communication before and after the announcement.
Besides his own firm, Boelk worries about the effect on Mendota’s other businesses, including the city’s post office. It was spared in the latest round of cuts by the Postal Service at least partly because of the volume of mail generated by Donnelley’s business. The closing drastically changes the equation.
Boelk also worries about the future of Donnelley’s building, which is about the size of a city block. He’d like to find a company to occupy it. Failing that, he’s hopeful the town can get help through the state’s Incubator program. It provides funds to help set up startups. Boelk says several small tenants would be preferable to an empty building.
There is some help coming for the employees. The Dislocated Worker program at Sauk Valley Community College has already been in contact with the workers. And if there is a silver lining to the closing at all, it’s that the size of the layoffs triggered both the sixty-day notice and the release of additional money from the federal government for employment counseling and training. But it still won’t be easy.
David Boelk says he’s worried about Mendota’s future. "With that loss of jobs, you could possibly see them moving elsewhere, and if they do, we’re going to have houses sitting here in this town that nobody’s going to be in. Will taxes be paid on them? There are so many things that could go on, and I think we’re going to see more and more of the hardships a year and a half out, and or a little later even than that," Boelk says.
Alta Stroyan says she knows Mendota’s townspeople will step up to help where needed. She says for right now, though,“The main thing we can do is pray for them.”
In Mendota, a lot of people are doing just that.