Top 5 Siouxland business stories of 2020: Pandemic, casino gambling, development

Sunday 27th December 2020

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Co-owner Juan Munoz is shown April 17 at Brightside Cafe & Deli. The downtown Sioux City restaurant was among scores of Siouxland small businesses that received forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, which Congress passed to keep employees on the payroll in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal

A sign in the Southern Hills Mall is shown March 20, days before the Sioux City indoor mall temporarily closed amid COVID-19 concerns, like many other public-facing businesses.

Dave Dreeszen Mason Dockter

SIOUX CITY -- Along with most every aspect of life, the coronavirus pandemic played havoc with commerce in Siouxland in 2020.

The first hint that the trouble would hit home came when face masks, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and even liquid soap and some food items vanished from store shelves, and the stores responded by limiting purchases and eventually slashing hours.

Then public establishments like bars and restaurants were ordered shut, followed soon by sky-high unemployment and waves of state and federal aid. Workers at meatpacking plants became infected and some plants were shut down, leaving hog farmers without any access to the market. Airlines and airports faced disaster when everyone stayed home. Fuel prices plummeted, bringing the ethanol industry to its knees.

Still, some major business developments in Siouxland this year had little to do with the pandemic, and there were a few positive events. Here are the five key business stories of 2020 in metro Sioux City.

Local news No. 10 story of 2020: After spike in spring, Sioux City metro unemployment declines Mason Dockter

1. COVID-19 shutdowns, unemployment

The speed at which the coronavirus pandemic closed down businesses in March was breathtaking.

On St. Patrick's Day, March 17, Gov. Kim Reynolds declared a statewide public health disaster emergency, limiting gatherings to 10 people and closing bars, restaurants, casinos and many other public establishments. At the time, the state had 29 confirmed infections.

Unemployment in the Sioux City metro skyrocketed to 9.3 percent in April, a figure not seen in state records dating back 30 years. The metro, which includes Woodbury and Plymouth counties, plus Dakota and Dixon counties in Nebraska and Union County, South Dakota, lost 7,700 jobs. The leisure and hospitality industries suffered major losses, with roughly 3,500 jobs shed.

In April, some hoteliers in the Sioux City metro were staring down occupancy rates in the single digits, as travel was stifled both by state restrictions and by fears of the virus. Movie theaters went dark for months. Even the Southern Hills Mall was closed for a time.

Dozens of Northwest Iowa business, including many bars, restaurants, barbershops, salons, massage parlors and some retailers, clamored for relief made available through state-level economic assistance grants and from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Local news No. 1 story of 2020: COVID-19 infects thousands, claims hundreds of lives in Siouxland Dolly Butz 6 min to read

Fuel prices took a nosedive in March and April, when people stopped going out and demand evaporated. Jackson, Nebraska-based Siouxland Ethanol announced in March that it would halt production the following month, reporting that U.S. ethanol production would need to be cut by 50 percent before production could be restarted at the 80-million-gallon plant.

Two weeks later, POET, one of the largest ethanol producers in the U.S., announced it would idle production at facilities in Ashton, Iowa and several others in the Midwest for the same reason.

Despite the initially dire outlook, most businesses in the region, including those in vulnerable categories like restaurants and bars, survived, and the unemployment rate subsequently returned to pre-pandemic levels.

2. Outbreak crisis at packing plants

During the worst days of the pandemic in the spring, eyes were turned toward the region's meatpacking plants as a major source of infections.

The Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City was the site of hundreds of infections and some deaths, driving a major surge in the virus in Dakota and Woodbury counties. By late April, production was halted at the beef plant, the world's largest, for a deep cleaning and to test all of its more than 4,500 employees and contractors. It was closed for about a week.

The Seaboard Triumph pork plant in Sioux City also suffered a COVID-19 outbreak during that time period, though it was believed to be on a smaller scale -- the company acknowledged in May that 59 employees had tested positive.

Officials at Sioux City's Smithfield (Curly's) plant never acknowledged whether there was an outbreak there, though a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls suffered a severe outbreak in the spring, requiring a lengthy shutdown of that pork plant.

Meanwhile, the closure of some packing plants was devastating for other players in the industry.

At a rancorous meeting of hog famers and government officials in Worthington, Minnesota, in late April, hog farmers described a crisis unparalleled since the Great Depression -- the specter of being forced to euthanize their hogs because the shuttered packing plants were unable to process them. At the time, a JBS plant in Worthington, which processes pork from some Northwest Iowa farms, was closed after many of its workers caught the virus.

"We're putting more pigs into our barns, but you can only do that for about four weeks," Lyon County hog farmer Dwight Mogler said at the meeting. "That's when you're faced with a decision to euthanize pigs, because you have no other options."

3. Nebraskans legalize casino gambling, Ho-Chunk to build casinos

Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development corporation of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, had been waiting for this moment for a long time.

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In November, Nebraska voters approved initiatives 429, 430 and 431, with roughly 65 percent of the vote, legalizing casino gambling at the state's six licensed horse tracks. Initiative 429, the linchpin of the three, was a constitutional amendment that allows casino gaming.

For several years, Ho-Chunk, working alongside the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), had sought the approval of Nebraska voters to build a casino at its Atokad Park racetrack in South Sioux City. There were roadblocks and stumbles along the way, including their effort in 2016 that failed when Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale rejected tens of thousands of their petition signatures.

Gov. Pete Ricketts and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne opposed the ballot initiatives, warning that casino gambling would lead to a variety of social ills rooted in gambling addiction. Proponents argued that casino gambling would breathe new life into the faded horseracing industry and that Nebraska was losing $500 million in casino revenues a year to neighboring states.

Ho-Chunk's fortunes changed in 2020, and soon afterward Ho-Chunk announced plans to build casinos at horse tracks in Omaha, Lincoln and at South Sioux City's Atokad. Ho-Chunk formed a new division, called WarHorse Gaming LLC, to manage the new casinos.

Some form of casino gambling is expected to begin at these tracks during the latter half of next year, and full casino operations should be up and running by 2022.

4. Major developments in Sioux City

Despite the fact that both facilities operate in industries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, the much-anticipated Warrior Hotel and Siouxland Expo Center opened their doors to the public in September.

The Warrior, an Art Deco landmark which had sat vacant since the 1970s, welcomed its first visitors in modern times in September.

Developer Lew Weinberg partnered with the firm Restoration St. Louis to transform the Warrior and the adjacent Davidson Building (originally an unrelated office building) into a 148-room Marriott Autograph hotel and 22 luxury apartments. The iconic terra cotta and brick exterior of the buildings was brought back to life; the Warrior's grand entry, with its shimmering marble staircase and ornamental railings, was faithfully restored.

The total price of the Warrior-Davidson project was estimated at $73 million.

Also in September, a grand opening was held at the Siouxland Expo Center, the nearly $15 million multi-purpose venue built on former stockyards land near Interstate 29. After hosting activities daily for its first few months, the Expo Center went dark in November after Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a proclamation limiting indoor gatherings.

In the future, the Expo Center is expected to host a wide range of activities, from large trade shows to youth sports tournaments. Roll out the turf, and a major college-level soccer match can be hosted or a dozen small soccer games can be played simultaneously in the arena. Two softball games can be going on at the same time, too.

Local leaders have been working for more than a decade to bring an ag-focused expo center to Woodbury County. But after costs rose to around $17 million -- $5 million above earlier estimates -- organizers were forced to downsize the project and change its emphasis.

Both the projects are part of Sioux City's Reinvestment District, a combination of four projects that will leverage a combined $13.5 million in future hotel and sales tax revenues generated in the downtown area.

5. Trouble at the airport, but flights to Denver return

The Sioux Gateway Airport had its share of ups and downs this year.

Air travel worldwide cratered this spring, after a patchwork of state restrictions combined with personal uncertainty about the virus led people to cancel vacation plans and business travel.

Passenger traffic at the Sioux Gateway Airport tanked in April, when only 261 people boarded flights, followed by 330 in May. These figurers represented a drop of roughly 93 percent over the same months in 2019. At the time, there were numerous flights at the airport leaving with fewer than 10 passengers.

The number of enplanements at Sioux Gateway did recover to some extent during the summer months, but remained dramatically below 2019 figures.

Then in August, American Airlines announced its plans to stop flights to Sioux Gateway, describing the airport (and 14 other small airports it planned to drop) as "among the lowest-performing routes that we don't foresee turning around in this low-demand environment." At the time, American -- with its SUX-to-Chicago flights -- was the sole airline serving the airport.

Like most of its competitors, American suffered alarming losses this year, hemorrhaging billions of dollars in both the second and third quarters.

But American soon backpedaled that decision, giving Sioux Gateway more time to find a new airline to service the airport.

Meanwhile, in October, Denver-to-Sioux City air service was reestablished by SkyWest Airlines. Sioux Gateway had been without flights to and from Denver since October 2014, when low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines halted the service after just four months.

The City Council later approved a recommendation that the U.S. Department of Transportation award a three-year contract to SkyWest for Sioux City-to-Chicago flights, subsidized under the federal Essential Air Service program. American also submitted a bid for the subsidized flights.

No. 6 story of 2020: Major projects open in downtown Sioux City No. 7 story of 2020: Nebraska voters green-light casinos at state's racetracks Unemployment hits record 9.3% in metro Sioux City in April amid COVID-19 pandemic View Comments Tags Sioux City Major-industry Nebraska Business Covid-19 Coronavirus 2020 Ho-chunk Sioux Gateway Airport Tyson Stf Concerned about COVID-19?

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