Time was, before the strong wind started blowing, this little agricultural outpost between Des Moines and Omaha had just about everything the consumer might want.
You could buy a new Chrysler car, a new International Harvester tractor, a complete layette for the baby. Perry Roberts would sell you a steel silo or a pair of pliers at his farm supply store.
Time was . . . but none of that applies today. The auto and the tractor agencies, the baby-goods shop, Roberts' Rural Supply and several other old-line businesses here are gone, victims of what banker Jim Boyd calls "a strong wind."
"Tough times tell you who the good managers are," said Boyd, who heads the Audubon State Bank. "A strong wind blows weak branches out of the trees."
In scores of farming communities in Iowa and the other fertile grain states of the Plains, the strong wind of economic recession blew all through 1981 with no clear sign that it will abate soon. "I don't see much potential for income in 1982," Boyd said. "I think it's going to be a long year."
The Plains, generally covering that block of states from the Rockies to the Mississippi River, offer a complex economic picture, better off in terms of unemployment than any other sector of the nation but reeling from a shaky agricultural picture. Falling income and rising debt endanger many grain and livestock farms, with the highly leveraged farmers in the most peril.
Energy development in other areas of the Plains is a bright spot, although slowed somewhat by the Reagan administration's deep-sixing of the huge synthetic fuel subsidies envisioned by Jimmy Carter. Recession and federal budget cuts have forced every state government to cut budgets or tighten or alter spending plans.
Detroit's industrial troubles reach into the region. Missouri has suffered from big cutbacks in auto manufacturing employment around Kansas City and St. Louis, contributing to a 6.3 percent unemployment rate statewide in late 1981--lower than the national mark but highest in the 11 Plains states.
Agriculture problems in Iowa (the nation's second biggest farming state) are compounded by the general recession, with layoffs in dozens of industries, including the big farm-implement manufacturing complex. Things have been so slack that even Parker Bros. had to furlough workers from one of its Iowa operations. The bottom fell out of traditional pre-Christmas demand for Parker's Monopoly game.
"People are trying to hold on," said Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, "and they understand that this is a national economy and that there are bigger problems elsewhere. But we have had a number of layoffs and extended vacations, with the thought that things are going to get better. We think inventories are being depleted and some pent-up purchasing is building up. Yet, it's so sad to see a three-generation business going down . . . "
That said, Iowa's unemployment rate at year's end was hovering below 7 percent, putting it at the higher end of the scale in the Plains region. At the low end: Nebraska (4.16 percent), Wyoming (4.19) and Kansas (4.40), according to the the Chase Econometrics Forecasting Service.
The Chase forecasters see unemployment in the Plains running behind the national average in 1982; they see manufacturing and nonmanufacturing employment and personal income rising at rates slightly higher than the U.S. average.
All is relative, of course, but in the Plains the glummest side of glum is the farm economy. The mix of low commodity and livestock prices with high interest rates and rising production costs--the story of farming everywhere in 1981--is expected to persist well into this year. Department of Agriculture economists predict an upturn, but not before mid-year at earliest.
"Wheat and livestock in my state are probably at their lowest points of the last 20 years and there is a ripple effect, a pattern developing," commented Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.). "Bankers at Wichita tell me things are slowing down; retailers find that they aren't seeing traffic from the small towns."
Nevertheless, the big private-aviation manufacturing complex at Wichita is offsetting a sharp decline in small-plane sales with increased turboprop and jet-plane sales. As an incentive, Cessna Aircraft Co. offers 10 percent financing for up to two years on its new Corsair turboprop.
How's business? Not booming, but not too bad, said a Cessna official, noting that farmers are still buying planes. "The rich ones use them to look at their land. The poor ones just use them for weekend trips," he said, perhaps facetiously, perhaps not.
Whatever the state of aviation, energy development has brought boom times to part of the region, with no hint that it will slow in 1982. Buoyed by the bullishness, downtown Denver and Salt Lake City are getting massive facelifts. Entire new communities are being built in places like Garfield County, Colo., where Exxon and Tosco are building a $3 billion oil-shale production facility.
In Wyoming, weekly wages in the energy industry average $447, oil rigs are in short supply and specialized blue-collar jobs are going begging. Towns in the oil and coal zones of Wyoming are mushrooming, with the influx of workers putting new strains on state and local services.
But in Wyoming and Montana, there is a flip side to the picture, as well. Generally slack national demand for coal has somewhat restrained strip mine development in the two states, but their future as an energy preserve is plain enough to see. Both states' timber industries also have felt the brunt of the national housing construction slump.
North Dakota is enthused about the prospective construction start on the nation's first big commercial synthetic gas production plant at Beulah, a long-germinating scheme finally moving off the dime. Oil, gas and lignite development go on apace in the state, officials in Bismarck say.
Kansas, famous for its wheat, set a new state record in 1981 by drilling more than 6,000 oil and gas wells--third highest level in the nation, surpassed only by Texas and Oklahoma. Colorado, with Denver becoming the western headquarters of the energy industry, is looking hopefully to oil shale, but its mining industry slackened somewhat in 1981, with coal and molybdenum suffering downturns.
Dan Sprague, a staffer for the Western Governors Conference, added a brush stroke to this varied picture of the Plains. "Most of these states have economies dominated by one or another industry. They're not diversified," he said, "so the states with energy resources are experiencing positive economics."
But, he added, "It's interesting to me to hear all the rhetoric about how the federal budget cuts are affecting the regions, how the Northeast and the Midwest are taking a beating. I'm not sure that's true. Just at a time when the western states need infrastructure development to handle and control growth--things like water, roads, air-pollution, port development--they are being cut and now they have to come up with ways to finance on their own in a timely fashion."