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U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, a Dunlap Republican, right, speaks to Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association President Jean Payne during a tour of an ag training facility in west Bloomington on Monday.

BLOOMINGTON — The last time U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood went by 10282 E. County Road 1400 North in rural Bloomington, it was a United Auto Workers building.

"They were incredibly gracious and sold us the property," said Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, which now helps run an ag training facility there. "Their philosophy is employee health and safety, so it was really good feelings for everybody that this was going to be used as a safety and educational center."

UAW Local 2488, which represented workers at the Mitsubishi Motors North America plant down the street in Normal until it closed in 2016, sold its former union hall for $560,000 that June, according to county records — just a few months after Mitsubishi laid off most workers in November 2015.

LaHood, a Dunlap Republican who represents parts of Bloomington-Normal, toured the ag building Monday and learned about its new mission: educating the next generation of farmers to use fertilizing and chemical-spreading equipment.

Asmark Institute, a Kentucky company, owns and operates the facility with assistance from IFCA, which is based in Bloomington and sent officials to welcome LaHood. They spoke about available classes and showed off some equipment necessary to train farm employees.

"We used to hire a lot of people off the farm who knew how to drive tractors and equipment ... but now we're hiring kids who came from urban settings, and you can't, day one, stick them in a $250,000 piece of equipment and say, 'Here, have fun,'" said Payne. "This is like boot camp for them."

LaHood noted the facility, which hosts training that attracts employees from across the United States and Canada, boosts the local economy as well.

"This helps when I go back to Washington, D.C., and work on a farm bill next year, and we look at how we help our farmers ... whether it's crop insurance (or decreasing) regulations," he said. "Farmers are the best stewards of their land, and getting government out of the way ... is what we need to do more."

LaHood also spoke to reporters about Monday's unveiling of charges against President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates as well as the upcoming GOP tax reform plan. 

"I don't see any connection to voter fraud or election fraud or anything connected to the Trump administration," said LaHood, a former federal prosecutor, of the charges. "I don't think the president should think about firing (special counsel) Bob Mueller."

LaHood did not say whether he'll support a tax reform plan that increases the deficit, as some members of Congress have pledged not to do, instead saying businesses and families alike can benefit from a tax cut.

"We think that will help the economy," he said. "That will get us back to a growth rate of 3 or 4 percent ... and bring down our debt."

Follow Derek Beigh on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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Normal and McLean County Reporter

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