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Gwinner's Bobcat gain could be 'huge opportunity'

GWINNER, N.D. - Rodney Hansen grew up here and has had strong ties to Bobcat all his life.

Now, the owner of Hansen Lumber & Hardware is affected both financially and emotionally by the ups and downs of Bobcat, which employs 860 people in this town of 790.

So Hansen is optimistic - but cautiously so - about Bobcat's announcement on Wednesday that it will shift 390 manufacturing jobs to Gwinner from Bismarck.

"Well, it sure sounds like good news. But there's still so much we don't know yet," he said.

This much is known:

Bobcat, which makes skid-steer loaders and light construction equipment, has been hurt by a global slump in sales.

The West Fargo-based company has made several cuts to its North Dakota work force over the past two years, including a statewide reduction of 195 jobs in August.

The company will cut costs further by consolidating its North Dakota manufacturing operations in Gwinner, where Melroe Manufacturing, Bobcat's forerunner, was founded in 1947.

The consolidation will be gradual and is expected to be completed by year's end.

The Gwinner plant is bigger than the Bismarck plant and better able to accommodate the combined manufacturing operation, the company said.

Population gain?

By any measure, Bobcat's announcement is a big deal in Gwinner.

"As bad as it is for Bismarck, it is a huge opportunity for Gwinner," said Jeff Anderson, Gwinner city manager.

Gwinner's population is likely to rise, though it's impossible to predict how much, he said.

The city has the infrastructure in place, including 15 to 20 undeveloped lots in a new subdivision, "to handle it pretty well if we have some people coming in," Anderson said.

The city also has nine empty houses, he said.

Nobody expects hundreds of people to move to Gwinner to fill the positions being transferred from Bismarck.

For one thing, 240 people previously laid off at the Gwinner plant will have first crack at the jobs being moved there, according to Bobcat.

Few of those people have left Gwinner or the surrounding communities where they live, Anderson said.

"So this (the transfer of Bobcat jobs to Gwinner) will help us get back to where we were," he said.

And many, or even most, of the people filling the remaining 150 or so jobs will live elsewhere in southeastern North Dakota.

"But we'll get some of those people. And even the ones who don't live here will shop here and help our businesses," he said.

One of those businesses is Teal's Market located a few blocks from the Gwinner plant.

The store opens at 6 a.m. to accommodate Bobcat employees coming off their overnight shift.

"This is great news," Becky Butler, a Teal's manager, said of Wednesday's announcement.

Bismarck's pain, even though it will lead to Gwinner's gain, was felt keenly by some in Gwinner, especially those with union ties.

"This is bittersweet. We have laid-off employees who want their jobs back - but not at the expense of our union brothers and sisters in Bismarck," said Tom Ricker, president of United Steelworkers Local 560 in Gwinner.

Impact on school

Anything that concerns Bobcat is of interest to the North Sargent School District in Gwinner. The district's sports teams are known as the Bobcats.

The district estimates about 80 percent of its 232 students have at least one parent who works for Bobcat or a company that does extensive business with it, said Randall Cale, the district's first-year superintendent.

A copy of an online news article about the Bismarck plant closing was taped to the front desk in the School District office on Wednesday.

"It's a good problem to have," Cale said of a potential rise in employment.

Cale said he met with staff to discuss the Bobcat announcement.

"We played the what-if game. What if we get 10 or 20 or 40 students because of this? If we do, will we need to make changes?" he said.

He and his staff came up with few firm answers.

"Right now we don't have enough information," he said.

That wasn't an uncommon sentiment in Gwinner Wednesday.

"We don't have any details," said LaVonne Huffman.

She and her husband, Mike, of nearby Cogswell, were in Gwinner Wednesday. Mike took early retirement from Bobcat about 2 1/2 years ago.

"We hope things turn out positive. But there's just so much we don't know yet," LaVonne Huffman said.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.