(This is the first in a three-part series from Missourinet’s Brian Hauswirth, examining the poverty in southeast Missouri and the possibility of the region getting a steel mill)
NEW MADRID, Mo.- The average household income in southeast Missouri’s New Madrid County has dropped by $6,000, since the Noranda smelter closed in 2016.
Missourinet spent three days in southeast Missouri last week, visiting towns like New Madrid, Kennett, Sikeston and Poplar Bluff to speak to officials, business owners, residents and our radio affiliates about the region’s high poverty and its hopes for new industry.
About 900 people lost their jobs when the Noranda smelter closed.
Martindale Chevrolet Incorporated is the only franchise car dealership in New Madrid. General manager Mark Kolwyck says the smelter’s closing has been devastating.
“A ripple effect not only locally with the business, our families, our extended families and everyone in between,” he says.
Kolwyck tells Missourinet that Martindale Chevrolet’s new car sales are down by 50 percent, since the closing.
He says the dealership is surviving by selling used cars and from service and body work.
Kolwyck says that ripple effect of the 900 Noranda employees losing their jobs has also impacted his family.
“I’ve got a brother that worked out there (Noranda) since 1975, he had to leave the area to find work,” says Kolwyck. “I have a nephew that was out there for almost 20 years. He had to leave and go to Cape Girardeau to find work.”
While Kolwyck has not had to lay off any of his 17 full-time or four part-time employees, he says his dealership is not growing.
Kolwyck says a $50 million payroll at Noranda was “ripped out of the community”, and says some residents have lost their houses and their cars.
Meantime, southwest of New Madrid in the town of Kennett, the longtime news director at Missourinet Kennett affiliate KBOA Radio (AM 1540) says the southeast Missouri economy is not doing well, since the Noranda smelter closed.
Charles Isbell, who’s worked in radio since 1963, says many Bootheel residents have moved to Tennessee to find work.
“The people in the area are frightened,” Isbell tells Missourinet. “They’ve lost their homes, they’ve lost their cars. Some have had to move out of the area.”
Governor Eric Greitens (R) says nine out of the state’s ten poorest counties are in southeast Missouri.
Kennett is located in Dunklin County, where 29.8 percent of residents are living in poverty.
A group called “Empower Missouri” released a report called the “2016 State of the State Poverty in Missouri”. That report includes similar data to what Governor Greitens says.
“Empower Missouri” says Missouri has six counties with child poverty rates over 40 percent. According to the report, five are in southeast Missouri:
** Shannon County: 47.8 percent
** Dunklin County: 41.5 percent
** Wayne County: 40.8 percent
** Pemiscot County: 40.2 percent
** Mississippi County: 40.1 percent
A state lawmaker from southeast Missouri’s Portageville compares the high poverty in his district to inner-city St. Louis and to high-poverty areas in northern Missouri.
State Rep. Don Rone, R-Portageville, spoke about that poverty on the House floor in May, during a special session called by Greitens. Rone’s voice cracked with emotion, as he spoke.
“I serve some of the finest people you ever want to be with. But they are all so poor. They are all so poor,” Rone says.
Rone’s district includes Mississippi, New Madrid, Pemiscot and Scott counties.
The “Empower Missouri” report confirms what Rone told his House colleagues.
The poverty report says 77 Missouri counties have free/reduced lunch participation rates higher than 50 percent. Four of the five highest counties statewide (Missouri has 114 counties) are in Rone’s district:
** Pemiscot County: 81.9 percent
** Mississippi County: 78.9 percent
** Scott County: 78.5 percent
** Dunklin County: 78.2 percent
New Madrid County’s population was 18,900, as of 2010. That’s down from about 40,000 in 1950.
The Missouri Department of Social Services (DSS) reports 4,052 New Madrid County residents received food stamps in September, which is the last month numbers are available.
During the May special session, Missouri lawmakers approved legislation aimed at creating hundreds of new jobs in the impoverished New Madrid area.
New Madrid city administrator Richard McGill tells Missourinet he’s hopeful of landing a steel mill, which he says would create 170 immediate jobs in New Madrid.
Missourinet will examine that possibility in-detail in part two of our series, which will be published on Monday.
Click here to listen to the full five minute interview between Missourinet’s Brian Hauswirth and news director Charles Isbell at Missourinet Kennett affiliate KBOA Radio, which was recorded on November 14, 2017 at the Kennett studios: