Round Lake, Minnesota: An example of where the job growth should be

All photos taken in August 2011

When you hear of creating jobs, what comes to mind? A better living for yourself and your family? Having enough money to travel to the places you want to? Paying down or even paying off your debts? What about economic growth for the region you are living in? All of these factors are foremost on our minds, especially since we are still living in the midst of a slow economic recovery caused by the collapse of Wall Street that started at the end of 2007 and accelerated in 2008, reaching rock bottom by the beginning of 2009.

But when I think of job growth, I think of Round Lake, Minnesota and the Sather’s Candy Company. Created by John Sather in 1936, the company produced roasted nuts and other candies, but was primarily a rebagging business- buying ship loads of candies, cookies and the like in bulk loads, and rebagging them to be sold in stores throughout the midwest. It was the primary innovator of the pegboard, where small-packaged candy could be hung in rows and large amounts. It created a trucking company to ship these goods to the stores throughout southern Minnesota and beyond, one of the largest in the region. And an outlet store was added in the 1960s, allowing children to stop there to buy their favorite candy, whether it was a package of gum balls, jelley beans, marshmallow corn, or the like.  The company operated as a single entity for 60 years, before changing hands three times- first being bought by Favorite Brands in 1996, which was later bought by Nabisco in 1999, which later folded into the Kraft conglomerate by Philip-Morris a year later. Together with Farley’s incorporated, Sathers was spun off to create its own company Farley and Sather’s in 2002. With its headquarters in Round Lake, one would think that the company would keep its home in a place where it was first created, and that people would be accustomed to.

The former Sather’s Outlet Store on Main Street

But then, 2010 came and with that, Black January. One evening, at the end of the second shift, all packaging personnel were summoned to a town hall style meeting- to receive the bad news. All packaging and trucking services would be relocated to Chatanooga, Tennessee, and the Round Lake plant was going to downsize. The moment people received the news, they cried. Most of them were 5-10 years away from retirement, have made a home in Round Lake for 30 years, and allowed their children to grow up, going to school in Round Lake and neighboring Worthington. There was some confusion as to what would happen with their careers, for many came out of high school and into the company, hoping to make a living there, and contribute to their community. The lights were going out and there was no exit to be found…..

One year later, I visited the Sather’s company for the first time in two years. I never worked there, but my father (now 58 years of age) worked there for nearly 15 years, as a robotics technician in the packaging department. He was one of many who received that dreadful pink slip in January 2010, but not before showing me and my wife and daughter the facility during our visit in the summer of 2009. Everything was bustling with activity as the people were busying themselves with packaging, having a great time. The working conditions were great. People made friends and invited them to a beer at the local pub or to a dinner at their houses a couple blocks away.  Everyone was in good spirits, as if nothing was ever going to be in the way.

Parking lot with overgrowth, one of the signs of a dying company.

But not this day. upon entering the company, one can see its deserted and even desolate state. Once filled with cars 24/7, the parking lot was being run over by overgrowth- weeds and vegetation. Machines that were bought brand new a few years earlier were waiting to be hauled to their final destination- a recycling center in Worthington to be sold for scrap metal. The loading docks are empty, even though there was talk of renting the space out to another local trucking business willing to establish its base.  The paint on the building was the same as in year’s past, but it was showing its wear and tear; its dreariness. While the Sather’s headquarters was still in operation, only a skeleton of the crew remained with no one around to talk to, finding out what has become of the company and of Round Lake. But perhaps one does not need an explanation for Main Street represented a ghost town. The outlet store closed down the same time the layoffs took place, but other businesses suffered as well. The only healthy business one can find in the town of 450 people was a gas station, the only bar in town and the grain elevator. Surprisingly the people still reside in town, for the nearest town with the employment opportunities, Worthington, with over 11,000 inhabitants, was only five miles away- a 10-15 minute commute pending on job and weather. Without that life support, Round Lake would have ceased to exist within a matter of a year of the layoffs.

Packaging machines waiting to be scrapped
The handful of business that still survive in Round Lake

How does this story fit the real picture of the job situation. Realistically, it is one that was in the making for the years leading up to the collapse of the US economy, taking every other country into the worst recession since the 1929 crash. Years of wrecklessness and uneven growth (starting in 2002) combined with lack of regulations resulted in an economy that took off like a runaway bus with no breaks, stopping eventually into a wall without a clue as to finding a way to at least slow it down or find a nice landing cushion.  The increased unemployment resulted in companies finding optimal ways of saving money, even at the expense of people who have worked there for many years.  While we have found constructive ways to retrain those affected by the layoffs, through educational programs at colleges and universities or through on-the-job training at another company, we still have not paid attention to the real job growth. More jobs are being developed in big cities than those in rural areas like Round Lake, while at the same time, we have fewer small businesses and too many large corporations willing to buy up all the assets of other businesses and relocate them to their headquarters, as a way of micromanaging them. End result: emigration to bigger cities where crime and pollution are rampant, while rural areas are dying off, with only a handful of young people left to salvage what is left of the population.

While Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been campaigning to promise more jobs, the reality to the situation is that neither one can get it done without changing the way we think about jobs and establishing businesses. While Obama implores patience (and he is right about that, as unemployment has broken the psychological 8% barrier and is sitting at 7.9%, a first in four years), what happens if the patience of many unemployed persons come to an end and decide to uproot everything and move elsewhere? Voting for Romney will not be the answer either. He promises 12 million new jobs by 2016 if elected, but for whom. Definitely not the 47% of Americans he wrote off because they are dependent on social welfare. They also want to work and do not want to be unemployed forever. And taking jobs from other countries to establish them in the States will not do, for the people there are suffering just as much (think of the European debt crisis and how it is affecting even the richer EU states).

Vacant space in the docking section: waiting for someone to fill it in and start a business.

So what is the plan? One should consider visiting the rural areas and talking to the people. Visit small towns like Round Lake and ask them not what one can do for the community but what the community was like in the past. While many people claim to not have enough knowledge of history, it definitely serves as a tool, as a way of looking back at the good times of the past and seeing if the past can be implemented into the present to jumpstart the communities for the future. One should look at ways to encourage businesses to develop in local communities. It goes beyond rebuilding business districts as many have done already. That is only changing the facade. What is needed is the redevelopment of the small hometown feeling where people have a simple job, a simple family and a simple life, fostering growth and encouraging children to grow up locally and have families of their own, helping others in need, and ensuring the businesses that start in small towns, stay there. The need for unity and pride is large but when we have it, we can prosper. Jobs will take care of themselves and unemployment will go down further. In the end, with the change in mentality and by not taking the promises of either candidate, we will see many small communities, like Round Lake prosper again. The empty parking lot of Sather’s will be full again with a new business taking over, which will generate local revenue for the businesses along Main Street. Through our own actions, we ourselves can make a difference.

I would like to finish my column with an interesting conversation I had a few weeks ago, which went along the lines of where we would want to live in a few years. Like many of us (and my wife and I are one of them), a big city life for the rest of our lives is not our cup of tea. If there is a place to live, then in a small community surrounded by lots of green where each of us had a simple job and not one in a corporation located in a big city. There is a big difference when you live in a big city and work for a big company in comparison to living in a rural community and working in a small business or teaching in a small school. It goes beyond the landscape (concrete versus green) and what is available for services. It also goes beyond the metality of the people both at work as well as on the street. It is our own personal feeling towards the two. Some are inclined to live in a city, others are inclined to live in a rural area. After visiting Round Lake, I know which one I would prefer if the opportunity opens up….


Annie’s Kiosk Coming Soon to Schleswig Holstein

Annie's Kiosk in Sonderhavn. Photo taken in May 2010

During my trip to Flensburg in May 2010, I did a pair of bike tours along the Flensburg Fjord, a bay area that is part of the Baltic Sea and enclaves the border city. On one day I toured the south end, finishing up at the eastern most point of the peninsula at Holnis. On another day, I toured the northern end, going through Denmark and biking past many small Danish towns en-route to my final destination of Sonderburg. On the way to the university city of 30,000 I stopped at a particularly interesting fast food stand in Sonderhavn called Annie’s Kiosk. This small stand resembles the appearance of a Dairy Queen ice cream stand  in the United States during the 1960s and 70s and may not seem to offer anything spectacular in terms of its outer appearance. Yet one should not judge the book by its cover, especially when thousands of tourists- consisting of bikers, boaters and passers-by- stop at this restaurant daily. Apart from offering a wide array of typical Danish goods, like ice cream, Annie’s Kiosk serves the finest hotdogs in all of Europe. It is unknown what the secret ingredient of the hotdogs is let alone all the dressings you can put on there. But if compared to any hotdog served at a soccer or baseball game, Annie’s tops them all.

But there is an underlying reason why I’m starting this column with Annie’s. While the restaurant does not have any franchises neither in Denmark nor in Germany, it is possible that an Annie’s may be coming soon to a city near you. But if that was the case, it would not be in Sonderburg, Flensburg or even Schleswig, but in Kiel- the capital of Schleswig Holstein.  A historic moment occurred during the state elections on 6 May 2012. Apart from Peter Carstensen, the former minister stepping down after ruling the state for seven years and calling it quits as a politician for the CDU, a change in guard occurred as the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Danish Party (SSW) managed to garner enough votes to form the Danish coalition. Yesterday the coalition contract was signed and today, the new administration under minister Torsten Albig will take office, making Schleswig Holstein the only state in Germany that has a coalition that is not traditional of the coalitions that are common in German politics (like the Red Green coalition, the Grand Coalition, the Jamaica Coalition with the FDP, etc.).

What makes the SSW different from the other parties in Germany? Founded in 1948, the party, which is headed by Flemming Meyer, represents the Danish minority that is living in the state, as between 15% and 20% of the population have a Danish background. The majority of them live in the former Duchy of Schleswig, which was once part of Denmark before 1866. The region consisted of the western two thirds of Denmark and the northern half of Schleswig Holstein. Since the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the northern half belongs to Denmark while the southern half belongs to Germany with a border located at Flensburg dividing  the two regions. An agreement in 1955 between Germany and Denmark recognized the former region and its minorities and provided exceptions to the norm. Border controls no longer exist. The two divided regions are part of the EuroRegion and take part in cooperative efforts to foster economic growth. The Danish minority is allowed to construct schools in the northern half of Schleswig Holstein, and lastly, in accordance to the state laws of Schleswig Holstein, the five percent hurdle does not apply to the SSW Party. This means even if the SSW receives 3% of the votes in the state elections, they are allowed to participate in the state parliament, which is not the case for any political parties originating from Germany.

So what does the SSW Party have to offer in comparison to the traditional parties and why did the coalition with the SPD and Greens work out? For instance, they favor equality, not only within the gender but among people with ethnic and regional backgrounds. Therefore allowing foreigners to work for longer periods of time, providing equal pay for men and women, and stressing the importance of multi-culture especially among their people, like with the North Frisans, the Danes and the Germans are very important to them. Integration through establishing a general schooling system but providing free education to all are especially important. Unlike this concept, which is based on a Scandinavian model, the school system in Germany consists of elementary school followed by the separation of students into the Gymnasium (high school for those attending college), Realschule (for vocational training) and Hauptschule (for those wanting to work after 10th grade) after the sixth grade year. The party has been pushing for reforms of the education system for many years, stressing the need for education (both in and beyond school) to be user-friendly. The job market must be more flexible and family friendlier, according to their policies. This includes not laying off people in the event of an economic crisis, like we saw in 2008-9 and are still feeling the effects from it, but also cooperating with the schools to allow families to spend time with their children. They do favor improving the infrastructure to make the delivery of goods easier and safer. One of the projects they support is the extension of the West Coast Autobahn A 23, which starts in Hamburg and currently terminates in Heide. Some improvements are being made near Itzehoe but the plan is to upgrade the main highway B5 north of Heide so that vehicles can access the freeway. And lastly, environmental policies is based on the concept of regeneration of nature. That means existing areas that contain flora and fauna should be left alone and areas that were occupied by industry in the past should be given back to the nature. This includes supporting reforestation and establishing wildlife refuge areas.

The three parties agreed to focus on three main aspects during the five-year administrative period they have in Kiel: Social Equality, Education and Energy Reforms.  Unlike the previous regime, where cuts in spending for social and education programs were frowned upon by the public, more money will be invested in programs that will help the residents succeed. The traditional German school systems will slowly but surely be integrated into a general school system similar to the Danish model.  Energy policies will consist of producing more renewable energy than using it, while at the same time, ween its way away from coal, fossil fuel and nuclear energy. Even the underground storage of carbon dioxide was rejected by the public and is not in the program of the coalition. The West Coast Autobahn will be improved and extended, while another motorway A20, which starts in Prenzlau in Brandenburg and currently terminates near Lübeck in eastern Schleswig Holstein, will be extended to terminate at motorway A7 north of Hamburg by 2017.  And lastly, the goal of allowing 16-year olds to vote before the next state elections in 2017 is also on the table. A brief overview of the plan can be found here.

Should the plan work to the advantage of the newly created coalition, it will not be surprising if Schleswig Holstein becomes greener, more culturally integrated and worker friendlier than it is right now. It is clear that these policies will make the state become more attractive, not only to the Danes living in the north but also elsewhere in Germany. Unlike some regions in the northern and eastern parts of Germany, the state has a consistent population growth of 2% annually, but the unemployment is about the same as the national average of 8%. But with this new set of policies to be implemented, it will not only make the northern half of the state with its minorities happy, but also the rest of Schleswig Holstein. And it would not be surprising if one day, we will find an Annie’s Kiosk somewhere in the state, along with the rest of the Danish delicacies, which many of us look forward to when visiting and living in Schleswig Holstein.


The flag of Schleswig-Holstein Photo taken in May 2010

2012: The Year of Reckoning

If there is a year where judgement day will take place, where our actions of the past will determine our fate in the future and where justice will be served once and for all, this year is it and for a good reason. Many sources on both sides of the Atlantic have already touted 2011 as the worst year to date, as scandals hit the airwaves, many politicians were exposed for their wrongdoing, many countries faced default as they spent more than they could save, and most of the public was led to a false sense of security, resulting in protests against Wall Street in the US and other financial institutions in Europe and elsewhere, and the Arab Spring, which is already in its second year.  While 2011 exposed all forms of lies and deception, 2012 will definitely be the year of the truth- where people responsible for the scandals and corruption will be brought to justice, old institutions will collapse and a new world order will be created, and the public will finally start getting what they deserved (and what they have been longing for since 2000), which goes beyond the color of money and other forms of financial security.

Many have gone by the Mayan assumption that 2012 will be the year Earth ceases to exist and that we will all perish on 21 December, 2012. Speaking from our past experience with Y2K and Nostradamus and its connection with 11 September 2001, this theory will never happen in practice. It will be business as usual and we will all celebrate Christmas and ring in 2013, so you can rest easily. Yet we will see fundamental changes in our way of life as many institutions will cave into the pressure by the majority who have perceived them to be corrupt and dysfunctional. What has already occurred in the Middle East and North Africa will make its way to Europe and the Americas, both legally (through the election process) and illegally (through the coup d’ etat).  It may not be like the hot summer of 1968, but it could be even hotter both literally as well as in the context.  Here are some examples of changes that we may see in this year:

The End of the Euro and the Return of the Deutsche Mark:  This week marks the 10-year anniversary of the Euro, yet there is nothing to celebrate about given the events that occurred in the last year. Countries like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and now Italy have more debt than what their Gross Domestic Product can handle. France might follow and Germany is stretched at the breaking point after dishing out its share of money to help Greece. And now the UK wants to protect its British Pound and its own interest. It is hard to believe that the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties, which were supposed to bind the 27 countries together (17 of which have the Euro currency), are becoming null and void, but given the problems the European countries are having to keep their fiscal policies in order, it is a sad reality. Despite attempts by Germany, France and now Denmark (which leads the European Parliament for the first six months of this year) to stabilize the Euro, elections in France and possibly elsewhere will make every attempt very difficult, if not impossible. Prediction: The Euro will fall and the national currencies, like the German Mark and the French Franc will return, but European policies will remain intact albeit as a loose-leaf political federation.

The End of the Dream Coalition: The sound defeat of the Free Liberals, combined with the scandals involving many members of the Christian Democrats and the lack of satisfaction among the Germans because of the Euro Crisis may spell the end of Angela Merkel’s regime as Chancellor of Germany. Already before the end of 2011 another scandal emerged with an ugly face involving the German President Christian Wulff as he was accused of obtaining a loan from a private bank, which has gotten the Opposition furious and the media happy to defame the former minister of Lower Saxony. Should he step down as president, it could create implications for possible early elections, which would not be a first in modern history. The last early elections of 2005 brought down Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder and perhaps a beleaguered Merkel could face that possibility that her coalition may not last to the scheduled federal elections in 2013.


The End to Washington politics: Perhaps the most pivotal event taking shape in 2012 is not the Olympic Games in London, even though the city will be touted as the first one to host the Games five times since the inception in 1896. It will be the Presidential elections in November that will remake Capitol Hill and break the deadlock that has given President Barack Obama headaches in the past two years. Health care, the debt ceiling, spending cuts, reinforcing the nation’s infrastructure, and finding ways to reduce the unemployment has caused the Republicans and Democrats to harden their stances and the public to lose respect for Washington altogether. Even the President’s performance is considered appalling in the eyes of many Americans. Yet the challengers from the Republican side of the spectrum have not been able to come up with a clear cut plan as to tackle the problems the country has been facing since the Recession started in 2008. Unless the deference of responsibility ends and there is a unified plan to handle the problems that have been left behind from the era of President George W. Bush, we could see a very hot summer over the US which could change the landscape of the US once and for all. There are three ways that could happen: a Revolution like in 1968 marked by protests and violence, a Revolution of 1848 that includes overtaking Washington and New York, or a Revolution of 1936 in Spain, which marked the beginning of the three year civil war. None of these options are desirable. Prediction: Change will come to America but only through a President with a plan and the ability to relate to the needs of the Public and a Congress that will support every policy the President has to tackle the problems that are keeping the country from becoming the best.


The End of Big Oil and its influence: This theory may be far-fetched but is possible in practice. After facing lawsuits because of oil disaster after oil disaster (including the 2010 Disaster off the Gulf of Mexico and the most recent disaster in northern Spain), the increasing interest in renewable energy and electric automobiles and people becoming fed up with the monopoly, increasing oil prices and its cozy relationship with politicians, the influence of the big oil companies will diminish due to regulations and the need to keep their influence in check, something that people have been asking for since 2001 but have not had their wishes respected until now.


The End of Ignorance to the most pressing environmental problems:  If the world ever was to come to an end on 21 December 2012, it will be because of the natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions, similar to what was seen in The Day After Tomorrow. While 2011 was touted as the wildest weather in recent memory with unprecedented snowfall and blizzards, combined with flooding and extremely hot temperatures, this year will most certainly be considered hotter and wilder. Already, both the northern half of the US and all of Europe (minus the Alps) set the record for the warmest December in recent memory with a green and brown Christmas, and 2012 started off with spring weather in Germany and all places to the north. If one follows the trend, a warm December means a January full of hurricanes and an extremely hot summer with high humidity and storms. This was certainly the case in Winter 2006/07 in Germany, where a warm December was followed by hurricane Kyrill, which devastated northern Europe, brought travel to a total standstill, and coined the word kyrillize. If people do not realize the gravity of the situation with global warming and take action, no one will and the consequences will be unthinkable.


And finally….

The End of Rush Limbaugh and Biased Media: In the past 10 years, we have seen the media veer away from becoming a neutral medium where people receive their regular dose of 60 minutes of news on the local, national and international levels and divulge into far left and far right media, influenced by  celebs like Rachel Madow and Keith Obermann (left) and Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh (right). With this divisive influence comes the split in family structure and value where members have been taking sides on certain issues and the ignorance of the most pressing issues that have been mentioned above.  Fortunately, thanks to the likes of CNN and the BBC, German public TV, like N24 and ARD, social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and lastly online blogs and columns, like this one, we are starting to see the influence from the extremes diminish. This is good as many people are really tired of the likes of Rush Limbaugh, who has harassed one celebrity too many too much. Earning six years worth $400 million to host his own talk show, he has influenced the public with his own version of the news to a point where many have believed his propaganda and have tried to encourage others to refer to him for guidance. Whoever says that Michael J. Fox is faking his Parkinson’s Disease and that oil is a renewable resource must be way too insane to write a column or speak on the radio. Once the elections of 2012 are finish, we will also see the downfall of many people like him and the return to reality and real news with neutral information, something that will definitely help us become more informed and indeed smarter.


But before seeing what 2012 will really bring us, there are some memos worth noting that will help determine whether or not the theories brought forth will come true.



Operation Wulff:  The background to the credit scandal involving German President Christian Wulff is as follows: During his time in office, he obtained a home loan from a private bank with low interest rate to purchase a house, which is considered illegal according to German law. He tried to avert the scandal by not mentioning it in his Christmas speech or in any of his interviews and apparently threatening the yellow press and other newspapers, which is also considered illegal. Support for Mr. Wulff is waning and it may be a matter of time before Chancellor Merkel will be forced to elect a new president- another torpedo hit to a Dream Coalition that has been battered with scandals since 2009.


Farewell to Arms?:    2011 was also a record year of deaths of famous people world wide, including those who passed on either shortly before or during the holidays. Among them include Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic who led the revolution of Czechoslovakia (a.k.a. Velvet Revolution) in 1989 and granted a Velvet Divorce from Slovakia in 1993. He was president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 at the time of the Velvet Divorce and the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. He died on 18 December at the age of 75.  Dutch actor Johannes Heesters, a popular figure in the German film industry famous for Die Fledermaus (the Bat), Bel-Ami, and the Otto series passed away peacefully on Christmas Eve at the age of 108. And Kim Jong Il of North Korea died on 17 December after a long illness at the age of 70. He is succeeded by his son Kim Jong un as leader of the country and hope is still there for the country to lay down its arms and hostility and embrace peace, although it still remains many kilometers apart. All three figures were controversial in one way or another because of political spats that were considered inappropriate in the public’s eyes, yet deep down realized that peace was important and to a certain degree have set the precident for the next one to enusre that peace and prosperity dominate the global playing field for the next generation.

Links:,,6683647,00.html (Havel) (Heesters)


The Drive to End Nationalism in Germany: In response to the recent terrorist attacks by the right wing extremists in central and eastern Germany, the drive to consider the prohibition of the NPD in Germany is gaining steam, even though critics consider this futile and will fail at the German Supreme Court in Karlsruhe. It is unclear if and when this will happen, but in order to successfully ban the party, one might want to consider rewriting the constitution, written while Konrad Adenauer was in power in the 1950s, and state that all parties that stress the importance of xenophobism, nationalism or nazisim are forbidden, and that law enforcement should be reinforced to ensure that the law is kept. A discussion on this can be found here:



Lowest Unemployment in 20 Years in Germany: Despite the Euro-Crisis, Germany had a record year as far as employment is concerned. During all of 2011, an average of 2.7 million Germans were unemployed, an average percentage of 8%.  Of which, 10.5% came from the eastern half of the country and 5.6% from the western half. This is the lowest since 1991, the first year of a reunited Germany.  Despite a slight increase of 67,000 people in December, the total number for the last month was 2,78 million. In addition, the Gross Domestic Product rose by 3% for the whole year, making it one of the most productive countries in the world. Unfortunately, despite the rosy numbers, dangers lurk for 2012 as the crisis in Europe may eventually drag Germany down thanks to cuts in programs and the country’s budget and companies’ planning on laying off employees, which could result in an increase in the number of unemployed. This was already announced by Chancellor Merkel during her Christmas Eve address, televised on German TV. It is unclear whether she will be right on her predictions or if Germany will buck the trend.



Double Storm to pummelt Europe: For those wanting to celebrate Epiphany this weekend and take down the Christmas tree, one will have to calculate Ulli and Andrea crashing the party and leaving a mess for Europeans to clean up. On Tuesday, Ulli produced winds as high as 150 kmph (75 mph) in places along the North Sea coast and the Harz Mountain region in northern Thuringia and parts of Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, uprooting trees, tearing roofs off houses and creating traffic chaos. Thursday and Friday, the storm’s sister will wreak havoc on the region with much higher wind gusts, combined with hail and snow in many areas, making it one of the strongest storms since Kyrill invaded Europe in 2007. More information will come soon.