After a monolith’s demise in Mexico, small businesses see opportunity

Down a cracked asphalt road, overgrown with weeds, and behind a chain-link fence plastered with “no trespassing” signs, the A.P. Green firebrick plant sits abandoned.

The plant, which once drew attention from world leaders like Winston Churchill and Harry S. Truman, was the backbone of Mexico, Missouri, for decades. There, workers manufactured bricks made from the town’s heat-resistant clay to line the kilns of steel plants across the country.

That is, until A.P. Green finally shuttered its doors for good in 2002. Today, the rusting plant — with only a couple small businesses housed along the outskirts of the facility — is a reminder of an era when American manufacturing thrived, providing abundant jobs in smaller, rural towns like Mexico. A.P. Green alone employed nearly 2,000 people in the region.

But as steel plants migrated overseas and the housing bubble burst, tanking the economy, many U.S. cities had to reinvent themselves from one-industry towns into something more adaptable to changing times.

Mexico, a town of some 11,000 people located about 45 miles northeast of Columbia, was the the first destination for Missouri Business Alert’s Outstate project, a special series exploring entrepreneurship in small-town Missouri.

Manufacturing still has a presence in Mexico, but the city has relied more heavily on other industries since 2002. | Kristoffer Tigue/Missouri Business Alert

Besides A.P. Green, Mexico is known for its cattle and horses, and as the home of the state’s annual Miss Missouri pageant, which is hosted by the local Missouri Military Academy.

Today, the health care and social assistance sector is Mexico’s leading source of jobs. That is thanks largely to SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital-Audrain, which is the city’s top employer, according to the local chamber of commerce.

Manufacturing still maintains a presence in Mexico, with hundreds of people working in the industry. Major employers include True Manufacturing, which makes refrigeration equipment, and Spartan Light Metal Products, which manufactures die casting products.

But during our visits to the Audrain County seat, we focused mostly on new businesses run by the city’s up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

We met a Nigerian pilot looking to boost his country’s aviation industry by teaching students to build planes. We encountered an immigrant entrepreneur running a growing business catering to the town’s burgeoning Hispanic community. We spoke with young residents who have recently decided to open their own small businesses. We found a regional arts center fresh off a $3.5 million renovation.

A dive into demographic and economic data uncovered challenges facing Mexico. The town lags behind the state and country in educational attainment, with just more than 14 percent of residents possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher. The rates for Missouri and the U.S. are roughly double that. Similarly, Mexico’s median household income, a touch above $41,000, is well below the state and national figures of about $57,000 and $61,000, respectively.

Other data points are more promising for Mexico. New business licenses have increased significantly in recent years, nearly tripling to 102 last year from 37 in both 2015 and 2016. Through October of this year, the number had increased again, to 107.

While the reasons behind that growth are manifold, many of the entrepreneurs we spoke with believe their city is in the midst of an upswing.

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