Small Town, Big Success

City of Perryville, MO
Written by Mark Golombek

Perryville, Missouri is one of those places where faith is paramount. City Administrator Brent Buerck sees this faith as a catalyst for the good fortune bestowed upon this city. Perryville is booming, and it has always been a thriving community. Businesses are setting up here, and not just small entities, but large manufacturers as well. Unemployment is just under five percent, a good infrastructure is in place, and the location is advantageous.
Faith is very important to Perryville. Brent states emphatically that this area has been blessed beyond what it deserves for many reasons, but part of that success is found within the foundation of faith upon which Perryville was built. “It is a huge piece of who we are!”

Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has roots in Perry County. The church had a seminary in a little town by the name of Altenburg. The seminary then moved to St. Louis, where it became Concordia Seminary.

“On the Catholic side, we were the first seminary west of the Mississippi, which became the historic home for the American Vincentians. St. Mary’s of the Barrens was the name of that seminary. It closed a few decades ago, and had to auction its incredible collection of artifacts, including a Gutenberg Bible, but there is still a retirement home here for Vincentian priests who conduct a daily mass in their historic church.” Through the help of the Perryville Development Corporation, portions of their campus have now become a higher education center where Mineral Area College conducts classes.

Each Christmas, the community holds a Christmas church tour of thirty plus old country churches. Some are still not wired for electricity, so beautiful candlelight leads the visitor.

“We are a fairly agrarian society and still have some of the best farmland in the Midwest. The entire county on the east side touches the Mississippi River, so there is certainly river bottom farm ground. As a community, we built upon that.”

Perryville had a couple of shoe factories and a poultry butcher in the 1950s. The community noticed that the local economy was not very diverse and worked to create the Perryville Development Corporation, an offshoot of the Chamber of Commerce. Twenty thousand shares were sold at ten dollars each to fund PDC. The intention was to lure businesses into town. A couple of years later, the corporation bought twenty-four acres of land in McBride, put up a building and brought in a company from St. Louis.

“That didn’t last long, but the building still stands and would later house Gilster-Mary Lee, which is really where our story changes in the sixties. Don Welge was its president, and he was from Chester, our neighbor across the river. He bought into a flour company. The PDC invested in him, and he, in turn, invested back into the community.”

Several shares were bought in the food processor Gilster-Mary Lee’s stock, which over the years grew to be quite valuable. So valuable, in fact, that a group of local business and community leaders who started the for-profit investment club that brought industry to Perryville decided to change the status to not-for-profit. That money has since been invested in the community.

Gilster-Mary Lee has about 1,600 employees and makes items for roughly two hundred grocery stores, focusing on foods such as noodles, cereal, cake mix, popcorn, and drink mix. Perryville’s original shoe factories ended up being a very good design for cake mix plants. Gilster-Mary Lee is also the sole provider of the chicken coating for restaurant chain Chick-fil-A and has sales of $800 million to $900 million per year.

“All of this created a nest egg that the development corporation has in turn used to buy industrial park property and build up the community. As an example, they spent $600,000 to help develop the Higher Education Center to help bring the Mineral Area College in.”

Perryville, along with TG Missouri, Robinson Construction and Gilster-Mary Lee, also just partnered with Ranken Technical College, a not-for-profit technical college based in St. Louis. It will be opening up a Perryville campus in January of 2017, and this will be a great asset because molded plastic automotive component manufacturer TG Missouri, Gilster-Mary Lee and general contractor Robinson Construction Company need a technically trained workforce. The college, with a stellar reputation for technical education, will help provide a new pool of skilled labor for local employers, and will also bring more young people to Perryville to attend school. The development corporation worked with Toyoda Gosei in the eighties to bring a small plant to Perryville. TG is based in Japan, but the Perryville location was its first in America and is now its largest location in the world, employing some 1,650 people. TG is a Tier 1 automobile parts manufacturer boosting clients such as Toyota, Ford, Honda, and BMW.

Robinson Construction Company performs commercial and industrial construction and recently finished a $30 million Echo Bluff Missouri State park. The Perryville-based company has done work in over 30 states, working for world-renowned companies such as Tyson Foods, Nestlé, Proctor & Gamble and several mining companies. Robinson has a great reputation for industrial construction and employs upwards of four hundred in Perryville and other communities. Robinson Construction provides very good jobs to people who are not afraid of hard work and have technical skills.

Perryville seems to be a magnet for these types of big businesses. Brent cited several advantages to the location. It is only seventy miles south of St. Louis and two hundred miles north of Memphis, right on the I-55. Perryville also has the only bridge across the river between Cape Girardeau and St. Louis, which is key for transportation purposes. In addition to good roads, the New Bourbon Port sits on the Mississippi River just to the North along Highway 61 and the Perryville Regional Airport has a 7,000 foot runway.

“We have been told by local industries that Perryville has an unparalleled work ethic. The community was founded many years ago by hardworking German immigrants who have passed on that strong, agrarian work ethic to folks for generations. This is a part of what separates us, along with a little luck and the good graces of God.”

In the eastern end of the county, there are several large lumber exporters. “We possess a lot of natural resources in the western and middle parts of the county. East Perry Lumber, Rehagen Saw Mill and Timber Exports are located here in Perry County, along with Seguin Moreau and Perryville Stave Company, both of which make barrels for wine and spirits.” Semco Distributing and EarthWorks Stone were also founded in Perryville. They both quarry stone and distribute decorative rock and landscaping material.

The Bank of Missouri started as the Bank of Perryville 125 years ago. What began in Perryville has grown to $1 billion in value with twenty-two locations all across Missouri.

Several years ago, Citizens Electric Corporation relocated its headquarters to the town. This company describes itself as a “member-owned electric corporation operating under the cooperative business model.” According to Brent, “this continues our efforts to bring a whole other level of jobs to Perryville, including electrical engineers and foremen.” Retail home center Buchheits also began here in Perry County and now has nine stores in the region.

Working collaboratively over the last several years has been positive for Perryville. For example, at least once a month, Brent tries to attend a Perry County Commissioners’ meeting. These collaborations have resulted in some very impressive endeavors. A community center of about 110,000 square feet, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, was produced via a partnership between the city and the county twenty years ago. That tax was recently extended in a collaborative effort again with the City and County, this time to maintain and improve the community’s park system and repair the 110 year old historic courthouse.

It is astounding to see what little Perryville, with its population of 8,400, has achieved. It has a huge parks center with a movie theatre, two basketball courts, two racquetball courts, a 3,500-square-foot library and a large weight room. There are ten baseball fields in the main park, and there is the Bank of Missouri soccer complex, which was started thirty-five years ago.

“A group of business leaders, somewhat similar to the Perryville Corporation, set out to make Perryville better. At that time, the city bought some floodplain property, which had been considered unusable swamp land for years and allowed the Optimists to develop it into a park using their own resources. In it now sits the best soccer complex between St. Louis and Memphis.” On October 22, roughly ninety teams converged for soccer tournaments, and the city’s population doubled nearly over the weekend. To date, local community leaders have invested $1.3 million in developing this soccer park, with the Bank of Missouri stepping up to sponsor naming rights.”

It is interesting to note that Perryville has more jobs than people at the moment. Perry County unemployment is typically one of the lowest rates in the state of Missouri, and an influx of people is required, along with new housing and neighborhoods.

“Even if our local industry wants to expand here, or new folks want to come in and open shop, we need a good workforce for them, and that is what we are trying to figure out now as a community. We need housing development, particularly single family homes, to support our employers. “



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