Glass makers leave Cherokee

Fifteen months ago Mark Buschkamp took his place at a press conference in Des Moines and hailed Bogenrief Studios as the crowning jewel in the renaissance of downtown Cherokee.On Tuesday, Buschkamp confirmed the business is leaving town.

"They are closed in Cherokee," said Buschkamp, director of the Cherokee Area Economic Development Corporation. "They are in process of moving things out of the building."

Mark and Jeanne Bogenrief, former packing plant employees who founded their glass-blowing and stained-glass business while on strike at IBP in 1978, made waves last year when they announced an expansion and moved their business from the Plymouth County community of Merrill.

At the time, Bogenrief Studios, with 22 workers, was Merrill's largest employer.

A $1 million promise

Officials from various Iowa cities, including Cherokee, courted the stained-glass makers, enticing them with downtown business sites, old school buildings and more. The Bogenriefs, who were also wooed by South Dakota leaders, traveled five times to meet with officials in Paducah, Ky., site of a bullish artisans community.

In the end Mark and Jeanne Bogenrief stayed loyal to their Iowa roots, a loyalty buoyed by the promise of a possible $1 million commission for work at the Iowa Hall of Pride in Des Moines, a stained-glass project revealed at that press conference 15 months ago by Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson.

At that time, the Bogenriefs determined they could move their galleries and hot glass operations to downtown Cherokee. They would move production facilities to a vacated school in nearby Sutherland, Iowa. Leaders in Spencer, Iowa, offered an old post office as a site near the Iowa Great Lakes for the family's hot glass products.

Eventually, Mark Bogenrief estimated, his studios would employ 100.

That doesn't appear to be the case, at least not now as trucks packed with equipment and glass head north from Cherokee to Sutherland. Many members of the Cherokee Industrial Corporation who helped the Bogenriefs unload their massive stained-glass panels in Cherokee a year ago are now helping them pack for the exodus.

"I guess I'm always the eternal optimist," said Jeanne Bogenrief, reached on Tuesday while returning a pickup truck loaned to her by folks with Builders Sharpening & Service in Cherokee. "We always thought that the more communities we could be in, the more we could help those places."

But when properties in their initial towns, Le Mars (a residence) and nearby Merrill, didn't sell, it put a strain on the bottom line. The strain increased when the Bogenriefs didn't receive funding for that $1 million Hall of Pride project, money they were banking on.

"Other than the original $100,000 that Bernie Saggau put up, that's the only money that's been raised," Jeanne Bogenrief said.

Saggau, who started his teaching career in Cherokee, recently retired as the executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association. The Iowa Hall of Pride, which opened in February, was his idea.

Energy costs compounded the firm's problems. With news that natural gas prices would spike this winter on the heels of $3-per-gallon gas, Jeanne Bogenrief said she couldn't bear the thought of paying 20 utility bills to maintain sites in three communities.

Consolidating stained-glass production under one roof at the old school in Sutherland will help the firm cut expenses in the short term. In doing so, the company let five employees go. It now employs 20.

"When the hurricane hit and gas prices rose, that was the icing on the cake for us," she said. "We always thought things would turn around, but we're more artists than businesspeople."

Will Cherokee bounce back?

What does the Bogenrief departure mean for Cherokee, a city of 5,369 on the banks of the Little Sioux River.

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600450 Glass makers leave Cherokee
Date: 15 September 2005

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