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Brownells Brings Expansion to Grinnell

Brownell's - Contributed
Brownells’ new facility, set to open in late summer of 2014, is located on I-80, just three miles east of the College.

Brownells, an Iowa-based firearms magazine distributor that bills itself as “The World’s Largest Supplier of Firearms Accessories and Gunsmithing Tools” is set to open a new location on the outskirts of Grinnell in late summer of 2014.

The new site, a 200,000 square-foot facility located on I-80, just three miles south of the College, will double the warehouse capacity of the growing, family-owned company. The decision to expand in Grinnell was a result of petitioning efforts that demonstrated the town’s potential for economic development.

“City manager Russ Behrens began the job of persuading and selling Brownells on the concept of [the business] remaining in Poweshiek County,” wrote Mayor Gordon Canfield in an email to the S&B.

One of the main obstacles that potentially would have hindered Brownells expansion to Grinnell from its base in Montezuma, concerned whether or not the small town would be able to provide the needed workforce.

“We are so lucky to have their expansion in Grinnell when they could have done that in Des Moines,” said Angela Harrington, CEO of the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce. “[Brownells] is taking somewhat of a risk because their tremendous growth will need a huge workforce. But they felt like those risks were mitigated because of the benefits of staying close to home.”

The opening of Brownells is expected to bring over 500 new jobs into the community and act as an economic stimulus to the town of Grinnell, according to Harrington. On top of the added new jobs, a portion of Brownells’ 300-person staff plans on relocating to Grinnell. Since construction on the new facility began in November 2012, new homes have been built to accommodate the potential influx of workers into the community.

The development in the housing and rental market in Grinnell is a key part of the stimulus package of Brownells’ expansion, and was in part a result of the efforts of an anonymous Grinnell College student, who unknowingly assisted with the endeavor.

“Thanks to the foresight of a Grinnell College student many years ago, [certain] buildings were placed on the National Historic Register and are thus eligible for various grants that will make for more affordable rents,” Canfield explained.

By making rent more affordable, Canfield expressed anticipation that workers will choose to live in Grinnell and contribute to the consumer spending. For two years, the city of Grinnell and Brownells CEO Pete Brownell have been cooperating to incorporate the company into the community.

“Frequently, it takes a business willing to become the ‘anchor’ in an area to spark significant economic development. We’re so happy to serve as the anchor business for Grinnell’s newest economic development initiative,” Brownell wrote in an email to the S&B.

According to Harrington, the Brownell family has lived in the community for around 75 years, since the company was founded in 1939. From supporting civic causes, such as local arts and park construction, members of the family have been active community members in Grinnell.

As a result of its investment to the community, Brownells was awarded the Economic Impact Award at the Chamber of Commerce Annual Awards on Friday, Feb. 7. According to Harrington, choosing Brownells as the recipient of the award was an obvious decision, as the company will essentially invest more than 20 million dollars in Grinnell. On behalf of the Chamber, Harrington also considers the addition of Brownells’ distribution of ammunition and firearms a positive boost to the economic diversity of Grinnell.

“Grinnell’s strength is in its diversity from an economic standpoint … It is what sets us apart from our peers,” Harrington said.

Brownells will not only act to change the economic landscape of Grinnell, but the addition of the company into the community also warrants another change, in that Grinnell may become a key stop for many new and unexpected visitors.

“Eventually, Brownells will make Grinnell a destination for many people that would otherwise not stop here,” Canfield noted.

Pete Brownell’s status as the second Vice President and Board Member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) has garnered some disapproval. However, according to Brownell, his involvement in the NRA has very little operational impact on the business.

The company has also received criticism for its continued sale of accessories for military style firearms, like the AR-15 rifle, which was used during the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.

According to Business Insider, following the Newtown shooting Brownells sold more than three years’ worth of magazines in a period of three days. This upsurge in sales was prompted by the threat of possible new gun regulations and gun control laws.

Despite outside criticism, the Grinnell community has demonstrated support in favor of the expansion and its promising wave of economic prosperity. According to Brownell, the company enjoys a positive ongoing relationship with the town.

“We greatly appreciate the open-arms reception, and are excited to become an even larger part of the Grinnell community,” Brownell said.

Rabbi Rob Cabelli, an associate chaplain at the Center for Religion, Spirituality and Social Justice at Grinnell College, expressed a unique and holistic approach to the gun rights debate in an editorial for The Des Moines Register following the Sandy Hook shooting. In the context of Brownells in the community, Cabelli hopes students at the College will look past hyper-polarization in American politics, and stereotype-driven criticism.

“I think that in a way, this can be a great exposure of Grinnell students to the real world, which is a challenge of how do we each find and ascribe to others our humanity in a world that seeks to categorize us in stereotypes and put us into a very few number of blocks,” Cabelli said. “Because, when you see and work with someone, you may realize and appreciate the humanity of a person that doesn’t correspond with what we associate with certain organizations.”

Despite the proximity of Brownells to the College, many students, faculty and staff remain unaware of the presence of Brownells in the community. Cabelli attributes this lack of awareness to the scope of human rights and social justice issues that motivate students on campus, and is unsure as to whether or not Brownells’ proximity will absorb student attention.

However, Cabelli hopes for students and faculty to embrace the opportunity Brownells’ arrival offers for the pretext for conversations and intercultural exchange.

“I think it could be valuable for Grinnellians who might come from backgrounds where the idea of somebody walking around with a firearm is very scary and intimidating to speak with people for whom the use of firearms and hunting is part of their cultural legacy,” he said.

While much of the positivity regarding Brownells’ integration into Grinnell derives from an economic perspective, Cabelli sees the change as a stimulus for discussion and engagement in the community. Specifically, he hopes that College students will not only learn about the different cultures their peers hail from, but will also extend that willingness in their ties with the Grinnell community, a community they are inevitably a part of.

“If, as one might hope, the College continues to strengthen its ties with the town, and there becomes more  and more interchange and encounter between students and townsfolk, you could imagine in the future, that will lead to more and more encounters between college students and Brownell employees,” Cabelli said. “It’ll be interesting in terms of what that does or doesn’t engender in terms of greater awareness of the other.”


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