Cargill’s plan for a 200-car rail yard takes another step forward, as the Cedar Rapids City Council approves rezoning for a second time

The Cedar Rapids City Council is one vote away from approving the rezoning of 17 acres of land near Prairie Park Fishery and the Rompot neighborhood from suburban residential to general industrial for Cargill’s rail yard. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Cargill is one vote away from being able to build a 200-car rail yard next to the Rompot neighborhood after an almost unanimous Cedar Rapids City Council approved the rezoning measure during its second reading on Tuesday.

Cargill employees and Rompot residents filled the council chambers for the noontime meeting. Approximately 25 people spoke on the plan to rezone city-owned land near Prairie Park Fishery and Rompot from suburban residential to general industrial.

But unlike previous meetings where a majority spoke in opposition, there was a nearly even split between those who spoke in favor and those who spoke against Cargill’s plan.

Those who spoke in favor focused on the jobs Cargill brings and the importance of keeping these jobs in Cedar Rapids. The corn milling facility has around 200 employees and 80 contractors on its team.

“This issue is about jobs, really good jobs, blue-collar jobs if you want to use that term; Teamster jobs,” said former Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett, who spoke in favor of the rezoning. “They’re coveted. Every community covets these jobs.”

Throughout the process, Cargill has said having its own rail yard is necessary for its Cedar Rapids operations to be cost-effective in the future. The company, however, has not given the city a timeline as to when they believe the Cedar Rapids operations will no longer be economically viable.

Dan Pulis, manager of the Cedar Rapids corn milling facility, said in an email:

We have not provided a timeline as Cargill continually evaluates its asset base to ensure it is positioned to provide a competitive offering to its customers. It also drives our decisions as to where Cargill overall chooses to retain or deploy capital in order to stay competitive.

Having access to reliable and economical rail is imperative to maintaining Cargill’s current operations in Cedar Rapids as well as a key factor as we evaluate any potential future investment.

During Tuesday’s city council meeting, Cargill employee Steve Nurre discussed Cargill plants that have closed in other parts of the country, including Texas, Alabama and Tennessee.

“We’ve heard several objections that Cargill is a rich company and that Cargill can weather the storm of all these increased costs,” Nurre said. “That’s not that case.”

Cargill, a Minnesota-based multinational corporation focused on agricultural goods and services, is the largest privately owned American business in terms of revenue.

According to the company’s own published financial statements, Cargill had $2.82 billion in adjusted operating earnings in fiscal year 2019 (Cargill’s fiscal year 2019 ran from June 1, 2018 to May 31, 2019). Those earnings during the first quarter of fiscal year 2020 were $908 million, which was a 3 percent increase of the adjusted operating earning of the same period in the previous year.

In response to emailed questions regarding the plant closures Nurre cited and whether Cargill would cut jobs if the rail yard plans fall through, Pulis replied, “We have been very clear that if the plant is not operating efficiently and cost-effectively, we will need to reassess our current operation and make some hard decisions.”

“Cargill has been operating in Cedar Rapids for more than 52 years. We want to make the needed investments to remain competitive and continue to operate here.”

Cargill rail car on railroad siding in Cedar Rapids, Aug. 29, 2019.– Zak Neumann/Little Village

But Rompot residents have questioned why jobs are more important than them and their homes. Mary McBride, who lives on Otis Road SE, estimated that she has invested $250,000 in her home.

“A vote for this is a vote to destroy my home,” McBride said. “Why are their jobs more important than my home?”

State Sen. Rob Hogg, who lives on Otis Road and hosted walking tours around the proposed site ahead of the second rezoning vote, brought up Envision CR, a comprehensive plan providing a vision for the future of the city.

Hogg described how a map in the plan told the public the property would be green space for flood protection purposes.

“That alone should end this rezoning,” Hogg said.

“The city has said in its comprehensive plan that it supports natural systems to address flooding, like a prairie pollinator zone in the floodplain. But in this case, the city would allow the conversion of a prairie in the floodplain into an industrial rail yard.”

Hogg also talked about the “double standard” of the city buying out properties in the Rompot neighborhood after the 2008 flood that now can’t be purchased or developed, but is willing to sell city-owned land in the floodplain to Cargill.

In the end, the city council voted to approve the rezoning for a second time. All members, except for Susie Weinacht, voted in favor.

Councilmember Scott Overland explained his vote by talking about the importance of manufacturing in Cedar Rapids.

“A major employer needs a solution to a problem to remain competitive in their business,” Overland said. “While it would be easy to vote no on this matter, I don’t believe a no is in the best interest of Cedar Rapids.”

But Weinacht, who was absent during the first rezoning vote in November, referenced the “vision that was set forth” by the Prairie Park Fishery, Envision CR and the Sac and Fox Trail when discussing her vote.

“I will respectfully cast my vote not against the need of a valued industrial partner but a vote to stay the course,” Weinacht said. “There is no doubt the economic development is important, and I urge city staff to work with our community and the folks representing Cargill to think outside the box. … As I see it, we remain open for business.”

The city council must vote to approve Cargill rezoning request three times before the change takes effect. The first vote occurred at the council’s Nov. 19 meeting. The third and final rezoning vote will likely happen later this month at the Dec. 17 city council meeting. That meeting is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m.

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