The right choice on Cargill’s ask

CBJ Editorial 

Cargill has three manufacturing facilities in Cedar Rapids, where it employs about 600 and uses 200 contract employees.

The food processing giant is one of the largest food processing and commodities companies in the world, operating in more than 70 countries and generating revenues in excess of $113 billion. It has a long history of reinvestment in Cedar Rapids, and in 2017, acquired Diamond V, the Corridor’s leading manufacturer of animal nutrition and health products.

So, when Cargill came to the city with an audacious request – to build a private railyard for its corn milling facility on 16th Street SE – the city listened.

Cargill said the facility’s operations are at a competitive disadvantage from rising charges at its rail switching provider, Union Pacific Railroad. It is trying to get the charges lowered in federal proceedings, but apparently sees performing its own railcar switching and storage as the best hedge against them.

The request was audacious because the site preferred for Cargill’s railyard isn’t on the edge of town. It’s in a partly developed area near the long-established Rompot neighborhood. Adding to the sensitivity is that the current site has long been labeled a nature preserve, and is near the city’s Prairie Park Fishery.

No Cedar Rapids neighborhood wants a railyard. The city got creative, even proposing to grant a rarely used Essential Service designation before some council members decided it could yield a lawsuit. After rejecting two proposals, the city council ultimately voted Nov. 19 to support a zoning and land use map change for a railyard on city land.

The deliberations were contentious, with heated arguments from residents and Cargill warning it will reconsider future investments in Cedar Rapids if it doesn’t receive railyard approvals soon.

The council’s vote to support Cargill reflected the city’s priorities and industrial heritage. It is doubtful the request would have gotten so far in communities that are less committed to industry, with the jobs, tax base and economic multiplier it brings.

The neighborhood presented arguments that cannot be dismissed. The action certainly reverses the city’s planned future land use for the area, and may affect quality of life and property values. Yet the city council ultimately landed on the right side of an extremely difficult choice, having reviewed studies and established preconditions to mitigate its impact, such as a buffer zone between the railyard and neighbors with a high berm covered with dense vegetation.

In the long run, it’s likely that having Cargill continue to grow will benefit the most residents at the possible expense of the few. Nevertheless, if the city approves the zoning and land use map changes on two more readings, it should rigorously enforce every pledge and precondition to which Cargill has committed.

Some neighborhood residents, fearing the worst, say the city should offer them buyouts. We think this would set a bad precedent, however as a good corporate citizen, this is something Cargill itself should consider. After all, the city has done the company a great favor.