With the recent Herff Jones announcement to close the Iola plant, and its associated painful impact on the Iola area, I was struck by the ironic timing of a news item in last Saturday’s Register recalling the closing of Lehigh Portland Cement’s Iola factory in 1970.
The Iola cement plant was built in 1900. In 1970, it employed 110 people.
As a local banker and member of Iola Industries, Inc., I am aware of some history as we deal with yet another challenge in our attempt “to keep jobs in the area and encourage new ones for our labor force” — the mission of Iola Industries. The story may be familiar to some — that despite losing a major employer and a 70-year-old industry and a big taxpayer, local leaders were able to repurpose the industrial site and make it productive in similar and in some new ways. Leaders made the Lehigh site a fruitful multi-purpose acreage used and enjoyed by many employers and organizations in the decades since. In fact, the Lehigh location still provides income and assets for Iola Industries, Inc., so that the corporation can still help the community adapt to changing economic conditions — like the recent Herff Jones announcement.
My father, Howard, who passed away in 1992 and was on the board of Iola Industries at the time, told me that shortly after the 1970 closing announcement the corporate executives in Allentown, Pa., contacted Iola community leaders and indicated that they wished to sell the industrial site to a local economic development group. The commissioners of the City of Iola immediately thought of Iola Industries, Inc. At the time Iola Industries had been functioning as an economic development group for about 15 years. After assessing the Lehigh opportunity, Iola Industries directors voted to borrow the money from local banks to complete the purchase.
The money was borrowed, the closing took place and when ownership became local, it was followed soon thereafter by a commercial auction of all the personal property on site. The auction of machinery, furniture, fixtures and equipment was so successful that the bank loan was paid off and Iola Industries, Inc. owned the real property free and clear. Ever since that auction, the board of directors of Iola Industries, Inc. has been the steward of the large industrial site and its adjacent quarry and farmland and has had the responsibility of how best to use those assets to benefit the citizens of Iola and the surrounding area.
The former industrial site was repurposed in several ways. The transportation area became home to Allen County Road and Bridge Department. T & E (Pallet) Company and D of K Vaults took over some sections of the old buildings. Most of the houses of the City of Bassett were removed to make way for what is today the largest employer in southeast Kansas, Gates Corporation. The 100-acre limestone quarry filled with water from natural springs and became a recreational lake that is leased by the Elks, and most recently the wooded area north of the lake is being developed for walking and mountain bike trails. The lake also has been leased as an emergency source of city water should an extensive drought limit use of the Neosho River; Iola’s Water Department staff help with the record-keeping necessary to retain the extensive surface and ground water rights that are part of the property.
In every transaction at Lehigh, the goal was to “recycle” property with a responsible buyer or to help develop the property to better serve the community — to be good stewards. Why? Directors and officers are volunteers and corporate resources are used to assist the community in “retaining jobs and bringing in new ones.” It’s always been this way and we hope it always will.
vice president and secretary of Iola Industries, Inc.