Article by: Greg Forbes/Denison Bulletin & Review
A crowd of businesses owners and entrepreneurs that gathered at Cronk’s Café for the Chamber and Development Council (CDC) of Crawford County’s annual meeting on Monday heard the ins and outs and do’s and don’t’s of economic development.
CDC Executive Director Evan Blakley informed those present that Crawford County is an unusual case in regards to trends in rural growth in Iowa.
“If you look at our track record, we’re an anomaly,” he said. “Only a third of Iowa’s 99 counties have had growth. Seven counties that have had growth are close to urban centers.”
Since the year 2000, Denison’s population has had a population growth of more than 13 percent.
Additionally, the average income of Crawford County citizens has increased from $23,000 to more than $42,000 annually since 2000. Retail sales has also remained steady in the past five years, to which Blakley said recent recruitment of businesses will help increase annual retail sales and limit spending outside of the county.
“I think we have a lot of room to improve here because we have a lot of outflow,” he said, adding that a fair amount of money is spent on products in urban settings such as Omaha or Des Moines. By continuing to expand business opportunities, citizens will have an increased desire to shop within the county.
“It’s increasing the selection we have, but more importantly, I think it’s getting the people to enjoy spending their money here at our retail locations,” he said.
To complement Blakley’s update of Crawford County, Rick Hunsaker from Western Iowa Advantage and Region XII Council of Governments explained how a solid economic development plan would allow the county to continue to grow.
“Economic development is attracting investment, it’s aiding in the increase of quality jobs, it’s aiding in the increase of quality jobs, it’s aiding in the increase sales and economic activity, providing for the long term vitality over the course of time for a community and…mitigating change,” Hunsaker stated.
Hunsaker continued that the top component of economic development lies within existing industry. Area economic development committees should be constantly conversing with established companies to address any problems or concerns.
The next component is sites and buildings, especially in shovel-ready sites, which appeal to new companies as timely and convenient.
“Shovel ready sites are those that…you can just come now and start to build right away,” he explained. “You don’t have to worry about sewer and water, zoning and roads and utilities. Everything is there.”
He added another part of sites is the existing building inventory.
“That’s our biggest problem right now in the region,” Hunsaker stated.
He continued that some prospective businesses, or leads, want buildings with as much as 50,000 square feet and 25 foot ceilings.
“Those buildings just do not exist. And if they do exist, they have been abandoned by companies because they were build post-war when we had a lot of building going on,” Hunsaker said. “So that’s a really tough one for us.”
In order to accommodate economic development, a community must also be clear on zoning regulations and most importantly, have a solid infrastructure.
Vital aspects of a good infrastructure, Hunsaker explained, include shovel-ready sites, transportation (airport and railway access), roads and high speed internet access.
Communities attempting to recruit new or expanding businesses must be able to market itself well and have a recruiting plan.
Hunsaker explained an important part of recruiting a new business is to be critical of what the business can offer.
“You have to scrutinize all those leads you get because you do get people that don’t have money or you get people that you can’t touch because they say ‘Well, we need to have a four-lane highway because we’re a distribution company but we’ll look at you if we want to,’” he said. “Do you waste time on that or not? That’s up to your economic developer.”
Businesses looking to relocate also analyze the current and available workforce, Hunsaker said. Such things as average pay, unemployment rate, employee skill level and regulations are taken into account.
Earlier in the evening, Blakley informed the crowd that Crawford County’s unemployment rate was at just 3.9 percent, which he described as a double edge sword.
“The public wants the unemployment rate to be as low as possible and in a sense, we do, too, at the CDC,” Blakley said. “But on the other hand, if our unemployment is so low, what we forget from time to time is that if we have such low unemployment, we don’t have an available workforce to bring those large businesses here that could help grow our economy.”
Hunsaker added that in order to counter the low unemployment rate and build a viable workforce, Western Iowa Advantage helps calculate the availability of qualified workers in the entire region and submits the data to a company looking to relocate or expand.
“It’s our best way of having to fight this low unemployment rate that really does harm us when people look to see whether or not we have an available workforce,” Hunsaker explained.
Aside from building availability, infrastructure and workforce, Hunsaker identified other steps the county must take to compete with communities for new and expanding businesses.
He said recruitment should be a community-wide effort, as the steps to economic development are often more weight than one individual or entity can shoulder.
“All of you are important to a successful economic development program,” he said. “We need time and volunteers. The staff can’t do everything alone. We have to trust each other and we have tot rust the decisions that are made.”
Hunsaker stated that Blakley and the CDC should also target businesses that fit the community and explained that Crawford County tends towards industries in a biological science field.
Finally, Hunsaker said, the entire process could be lumped into a community inventory.
“You need to be really critical in your mind about what you can do to improve your community because that’s what is really going to help,” he said. “You need to think who you see as your competitor when you think of other towns in western Iowa. Why do you think they’re doing a good job and what can you emulate? There is nothing wrong with stealing a good idea.”
He continued, “Really, honestly think about what your weaknesses are…You need to really drill down and find what’s not so great about your quality of life because that’s what you want to fix and work on so that you can make it a better place to live.”