MASON CITY | About a dozen Aaron's employees gave Sen. Joni Ernst a tour of their Mason City showroom Monday afternoon.
It was a different setting than a typical town hall, as staffers of the rent-to-own business explained how they work with customers to help them afford everything from furniture to electronics to appliances.
Ultimately, Ernst chose the spot in Cerro Gordo County for her 99 county tour because it highlights a business that helps those who are economically challenged.
"This was one business that was identified as actually being really flexible and working with customers' needs," Ernst told reporters after her tour of the showroom. "And so it was, let's go out and see how they actually do this."
Ernst fielded questions about gun control, mental health, NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and other issues. When it came to challenges for Cerro Gordo County residents, however, her focus shifted to tax reform.
Ernst said reforming the tax code is vital to people living "paycheck to paycheck," and hopes changes to it can help lower and middle-class citizens' financial burdens.
A specific problem, she said, is how residents lose considerable government assistance when they move up the tax bracket ladder.
"Instead of bumping up against a fiscal cliff and losing all governmental supports—there are a lot of families that rely on those—is to ease them up out of poverty rather than trapping them in poverty," Ernst said. "We've got to do better for them."
Another problem statewide is people losing health care coverage as Trump starts to rollback certain aspects of Obamacare. Ernst said she has heard multiple stories of Iowans who will already be unable to afford health insurance once their current plans expire.
She added it's imperative that politicians in Washington, D.C. figure out the health care debate before the situation becomes more dire.
"Insurance is only one issue though," she said of health care. "We have to figure out the actual costs of health care ... insurance won't make a difference if you can't afford the actual health care."
Brent Gregurek, chief operating officer of Arona Corporation—which owns Aaron's—said company employees had previously met Sen. Ernst at fundraisers and other events, adding it was a pleasure to show her how the Mason City store operated.
He agreed with Ernst that tax reform is a major issue for lower and middle-class individuals, and added she seemed hopeful in their discussion.
"We would certainly like to see tax reform in the whole United States, not just here," Gregurek said. "The senator felt ... on a federal level that by the end of the year, that we may see tax reform."
Mark Connelly, executive vice president for Bernau Capital Partners—which oversees Aaron's—said he appreciated Ernst's humility and willingness to learn about what Aaron's does for its customers.
He also agreed with Ernst and tax reform, and hopes President Trump can lead some change to the code that impacts lower and middle-class Americans.
"If it's better for us, then what we do is we open more stores, we reinvest that money, we hire more people," Connelly said of tax reform's impact on Aaron's.
Another statewide issue Sen. Ernst has focused on recently is the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which demands a certain amount of biofuels to be blended into the United States' fuel supply.
Ernst, along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, wrote an op-ed earlier this month highlighting the importance of RFS, and calling out the EPA for proposing a reduction in biodiesel levels nationwide.
She told reporters that supporting RFS encourages growth in the renewable energy market, and hopes progress can be made when she meets with EPA chief Scott Pruitt within the next couple weeks.
"We do want cleaner energy, I think that's really important," Ernst said. "But we also want to find a sustainable way of moving our fuels forward. We have the techonology and ability to do that."
CLEAR LAKE | Casey's General Stores is currently in the process of finalizing a deal to buy the iconic Clear Lake Barrel Drive-In property.
James Pistillo, vice president and treasurer for Casey's, told the Globe Gazette that a price has been agreed upon, but some legal details are still being negotiated.
"We have it under contact, but it's still subject to final regulations," Pistillo said.
Pistillo declined to state the price Casey's offered, but added the deal could be abandoned if both parties don't reach final legal agreements.
Dick Hayes, the real estate agent for the property, declined to comment Monday, citing he could not speak about "pending transactions."
Currently, Iowa Realty has listed the property at $398,000. Seth Thackery, former owner/operator of the Barrel, could not be reached for comment by email Monday morning.
Although the drive-in has closed, its giant chicken and barrel have found a new home just under 75 miles to the north.
Troy Bendt, owner of Barney's Drive-in in Waseca, Minnesota, said he first visited the Barrel Drive-In ten years ago. When he recently heard from a friend that it was closing, he contacted Thackery about the barrel and chicken.
Bendt said the two items were sold on Bid 2 Buy, an online auction site. He bought the chicken for a little over $3,000, and the barrel for somewhere between $400-500.
Numerous other items from the restaurant were sold on the site, under the page "'The Barrel' restaurant liquidation.' Winning bids listed for the chicken and barrel are lower because they don't include taxes and fees, and the winning bid doesn't have to be public, Bendt said.
When Bendt and friends arranged to pick up the chicken and barrel last month, people driving by were curious, he said.
"We had 50 people stop by, asking, 'Where is the chicken going?'" Bendt said.
Bendt, who has owned Barney's Drive-In for the past 11 years—which coincidentally, sits just south of Clear Lake in Minnesota—said he hopes to have the chicken and barrel up by next year. Currently, he has a giant cheeseburger model, Adirondack chair, and other quirky items on display.
"I'm working on getting the main frame [for the barrel]," Bendt said of displaying the iconic item. "I heard [Casey's] might have bought the place, and I don't see why a gas station would want it."
CLEAR LAKE | Even in her final days, 13-year-old Natasha Bryan, who died Thursday, was thinking of others.
That's why her mother, Christina Gayken, will travel to St. Marys Hospital in Rochester, Minn., on Thursday to deliver some of Natasha's toys and other items to children hospitalized there.
"Natasha told us that's what she wanted," said her mother. "She was an amazing kid. She always cared more about others than about herself."
Natasha was diagnosed in January of 2016 with Wilm's Tumor, a form of kidney cancer. She finished chemotherapy sessions earlier this year and even had a positive biopsy in April.
On Monday, the day of her funeral, many staff and students at Clear Lake Middle School wore orange clothing in tribute to Natasha. Orange is the color of kidney cancer awareness.
Some wore T-shirts they purchased earlier this year when the school held an "Orange Out" day in which the T-shirts were sold to raise money for her family to help cover medical expenses.
Natasha was an eighth grader. J. Ham, a school counselor who served as a liaison to the family, said a photo of Natasha, in which she is smiling broadly, is how people will remember her. "The picture says it all," said Ham. "That was Natasha. There wasn't a mean bone in her body. She always made people feel happy."
Ham said she had periodic contact with a social worker at St. Marys in Rochester who interacted with Natasha. The social worker always commented on her great attitude despite her circumstances.
"The social worker said Natasha taught her a lot," said Ham.
As Christina Gayken talked Monday about her daughter's life, about how she loved cats, she loved science, she loved to read and she loved the people around her.
Gayken could smile even in her grief because of a thought she kept repeating: "She was an amazing kid."