Hormel Goes Halvsies on Improving Spam Town’s Water Quality

Hormel and the family behind it have long held a big role in the economy of hometown Austin, Minnesota. Now, the family’s foundation has committed to covering half the cost of a major waterways improvement effort. 

The hometown of Spam has slowly but surely shored up its surrounding rivers and watershed, and a $3.2 million grant from the Hormel Foundation will fund accelerating progress. It’s a notable split between public and private funds, with the foundation matching government and other grants to fund a five-year initiative that will significantly step up the efforts. The grant is part of a combined push from industry, government, philanthropy, and community, to reshape the town.

Like a lot of Midwestern cities, Austin has been defined over the years by a local factory, in this case food company Hormel, the city’s largest employer and source of the “Spam Town, USA” nickname. Of course, Midwestern cities are also defined by their waterways, and Austin has the Cedar River and Dobbins Creek, both of which are listed by the state as “impaired.”

In 2007, new government agency Cedar River Watershed District formed to look after the waters, carrying out restoration projects to reduce flooding and stormwater pollution. But the projects have relied on lagging government funding, so it’s been slow going. Then in 2011, city officials and business leaders launched Vision 2020, a community-driven plan to revitalize Austin, and improving waterways was one of the priorities it chose. 

Industry and philanthropy play big roles in Vision 2020, involving both the Hormel company and Hormel Foundation (while the foundation is not connected to the company, it derives from its founding family’s wealth and still shares some leadership). The foundation initially funded the research center the Hormel Institute, and still does, but also backs community projects and has close involvement in Vision 2020, with Gary Ray serving as the chair of both.

So the foundation was the go-to benefactor to light a fire under the waterway restoration effort. Or as a Vision 2020 representative described it, “pour gasoline on the fire.”

To give some idea of how much of an increase in funding this is for the watershed district, the government entity had been spending about $50,000 a year on capital projects to improve the waterways. Now, with Hormel funding, CRWD’s regular budget, state and federal grants, $9 million will be spent over the next five years. 

Work involves reducing flooding, downstream erosion, and storm water runoff from reaching the waterways, as well as restoring wetlands and ravines. 

Hormel has not always been such a beneficent presence for the town. Back in 1985, pay cuts, a labor dispute, and one of the longest strikes of the era tore the town apart. In the aftermath of the company's win, the hiring of new workers at lower wages reshaped the town’s demographics. 

These days, Austin is at another turning point, and the Hormel company and family are playing another big role, this time not just as an employer. Efforts like the waterway restoration project are now reshaping Austin, Minnesota by improving quality of life and drawing more business. And they are being led by one of these modern, emerging amalgams of industry, philanthropy, and government.