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Iowa Town Prepares for Maytag Closures

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This past week, the nation's largest appliance maker, Whirlpool, announced it had completed the purchase of Maytag. The news came with an announcement that Maytag will pull up its roots and move out of Newton, Iowa, a town the company has called home for more than 100 years.

From Newton, Joyce Russell of Iowa Public Radio has more.

JOYCE RUSSELL reporting:

Within hours of the announcement, a crowd gathered to hear Mayor Chaz Allen, who could not hide his dismay.

Mayor CHARLES CHAZ ALLEN (Mayor of Newton, Iowa): Obviously, today is a disappointment. A lot of people put a lot of time into the retention of jobs.

RUSSELL: But try as they might, Newtown officials could not convince Whirlpool to keep the Maytag operations open. Now the company town must adjust to life without its dominant corporate citizen.

In the crowd here was Maytag line worker Vicky Dushein(ph). Her family's Maytag roots go deep.

Ms. VICKY DUSHEIN (Maytag Line Worker): I've been there for 22 years. My aunt worked there for 30 years. My grandfather retired from there. It's sad. It's like a death.

RUSSELL: The plant closing was the talk at Midtown Cafe, located downtown in the former Maytag Hotel. Today's specials are meatloaf and ham. Local Travel Agent Dena Johnson Pervis'(ph) husband, father-in-law and two brothers worked at Maytag.

Ms. DENA JOHNSON PERVIS (Travel Agent, Newton, Iowa): I talked to one of my close friends and she put in, I think, 28 years out of Maytag. And so, guess when she's not going to not have her job? At the 29th year. At Maytag, it was 30 years and you got to retire.

RUSSELL: Pervis likes to recall to her customers how founder Fred Maytag designed his first washing machine, how he lived in town and sent his kids to school here. And she's sad to see that link with history diminished.

Paul Bell serves in the Iowa legislature and is a police officer in Newton. He says he can't believe that Maytag will be gone.

Mr. PAUL BELL (Police Officer, Newton, Ohio): I think the loss of Maytag will be felt for a long time because people don't, you know, don't understand that it's gone now. And it will take a while for people to understand that.

RUSSELL: Bell, who has gone on trade missions with state officials, says it was always a plus to hail from Maytag's hometown since the Fortune 500 company's name is so well-known around the world.

Now those charged with bringing new jobs to town have lost an edge.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. KIM DIDIER (Executive Director, Newton Development Corporation, Iowa): Good afternoon. Newton Development Corporation. May I help you?

RUSSELL: That's Executive Director Kim Didier, who has a daunting task ahead. She says it would be a mistake to think Newton will land another big company to take Maytag's place.

Growing a new business from scratch is more likely.

Ms. DIDIER: Because if you go back, our heritage is based on that. F.L. Maytag created the first washer because he was diversifying from farm implement business, and he needed something to do in the winter. So it's that entrepreneurial spirit that I think is what we'll continue to cultivate, and will be our success.

RUSSELL: In the meantime, Newton business owners are tightening their belts for some lean days ahead. And one local appliance dealer already sees a change. With emotions running high about the takeover, sales of Whirlpool products are way down.

For NPR News, I'm Joyce Russell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joyce Russell is a correspondent based at the Iowa Statehouse. Joyce has been covering the Iowa Statehouse since shortly after joining the news staff at WOI Radio in 1988. Her earlier broadcasting experience included news reporting at commercial stations in Oklahoma City and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Joyce’s reports can be heard on National Public Radio and American Public Media programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace. She covered the last six Iowa caucus campaigns and interviewed numerous candidates for president, including some who went on to attain the highest office in the land.
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