By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Sept. 13, 2023 — On a chilly but sunny late-fall morning two years ago, I walked into Greene Bean Coffee in Jefferson just as Debi Durham, the state’s economic development director since 2011, was walking out. She was wearing some kind of trench coat and sunglasses and carrying her cup of joe to go. Since we’ve been friends for years, I said hello and asked, “Are you sneaking up on us?”
“Oh no,” she said. “I’m here more than you might think.”
Before her state job, she served 15 years as CEO of the Sioux City region’s Chamber of Commerce and economic development efforts, and once ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for lieutenant governor. Durham definitely knows her away around Iowa.
“It seems like Jefferson always has something going on,” she said back then. “When I come this way, I often stop in here, get a cup of coffee and, if I’ve got time, I walk around the streets a little bit and visit with people about what’s happening.”
I got back to her last week and asked if she’s aware of all the development work that’s happening around Greene County now – I knew she was – and what she thinks of it.
“When business, government and communities unite around progress and growth, you see the type of activity that Greene County is experiencing,” Durham wrote in answer.
“The vision of a group of local women in Jefferson to join and restore the cherished Centennial Block building epitomizes the energy, dedication and sense of pride that is palpable throughout the county,” she continued. “Additionally, the foresight and unwavering commitment to supporting public-private partnerships via the steady hand of leaders like Ken Paxton, Sid Jones, Norm Fandel, Chuck Offenburger, Peg Raney, Rick Morain have spurred transformative initiatives that will not only leave a lasting legacy, but also serve as a solid foundation in cultivating the next generation of leaders like entrepreneur Chris Deal.
“Notable investments in public art and childcare, to the development of a multicultural initiative, and most recently with Jefferson being designated as one of Iowa’s ‘Thriving Communities,’ it is evident that Greene County’s wholistic and exemplary approach to community vitality and development are yielding dividends.”
Take a bow, everybody!
Sid Jones, left, is current president of the Greene County Development Corp., and Scott Weber, now the vice-president, is nominated to succeed Jones at the first of the year.
Now, let me square up here: Yes, I’m a little embarrassed to have made Durham’s list. And, yes, I’m biased about economic development here. Since November of 2021, I’ve been a member of the board of Greene County Development Corp. (GCDC). I’m chairperson of the organization’s steering committee that is working to grow the county’s diversity, workforce and overall population.
So, consider the source, as we always say in journalism: I’m telling you, GCDC Executive Director Ken Paxton had it right on Aug. 22, in his monthly briefing to the Jefferson City Council, when he said, “We’ve had some pretty good news lately. We’ve been on a pretty good roll,” as reported by Greene County News Online. “Not just GCDC, but the city and the county. A lot of things have been going right for us lately.”
A WHOLE LOT OF DEVELOPMENT. Here are some facts people need to know:
–When the City of Jefferson recently put together its application to become one of 11 “Thriving Iowa Communities,” which Durham cited above, one supporting document reported that in the past decade, there has been $128,700,000 in public-private investment completed, just in Jefferson. That includes these nine projects: Wild Rose Casino & Resort, $40 million; new Greene County High School and other schools’ renovations in Jefferson, $30 million; Greene County Medical Center, renovation and expansion, $22.5 million; Jefferson downtown improvements, $11 million; Hy-Vee building and opening here, $7 million; rental housing completed in Jefferson, $6 million; new Iowa Central Career Academy adjacent to the high school, $5 million; single-family housing permits in the city, over three years, $4.8 million, and The Children’s Center new daycare and education facility, $2.4 million. The application noted: “All accomplished in a town of just 4,136 people over 10 years.” That sentence should have had an exclamation point.
–In that same period, there have been huge agricultural and other rural developments around Greene County. NEW Cooperative built and opened its massive new Cooper Feed Mill, an investment of something near $70 million – one of the biggest single-facility building projects in county history. And Landus cooperative completed a two-year reconstruction of a significant portion of its sprawling facilities in Jefferson after an explosion in 2021. Syngenta Seeds’ big soybean processing plant in Jefferson and the Neese Inc. ag services company in Grand Junction keep growing. Several utility companies have been involved in erecting and operating nearly 150 wind turbines in Greene County, a project easily worth more than $150 million. Between Grand Junction and Rippey, National Grid Renewables Development is now planning a major solar energy-producing installation that will spread across 1,000 acres. Plus, the county now has more than 100 hog confinement facilities, the permitting and construction of which are sometimes contentious but they’re undeniable economic drivers, especially for young farmers and hired hands. Cattle numbers appear to be up. Grain crops have been good and great the last couple years. And, with two derechos and persistent drought over one 3-year period, federal ag support and relief payments have been substantial in the county.
–There have been major industrial expansions, probably the largest at Bauer Built Manufacturing in Paton, where owner Vaughn Bauer started a new metal fabrication and innovation business after selling his original plant in Paton to John Deere. And while the Bauer team was at it, they added the Paton Pit Stop convenience store & gas station, and their 209 Main restaurant. In Scranton, the McLaughlin Family Companies have substantially grown their New Way Trucks plant, producing garbage and recycling trucks sold around the world.
The point is, we have had significant, major, economic growth across Greene County.
With it has come a challenge.
“We don’t really need more jobs,” said GCDC President Sid Jones, the recently-retired president of Home State Bank in Jefferson. “We need more people.”
The county’s five major manufacturers, the casino and the medical center – those are Greene County’s largest employers – two years ago this fall reported they had 300 open jobs and little success in filling them. That has restrained even more economic growth, giving rise to fears we could begin losing companies if they can’t find workers.
GCDC responded by launching an initiative to grow both the workforce and the county’s overall population of 8,717, which is less than half what it was 8o to 100 years ago.
OPEN MINDS, OPEN HEARTS, OPEN FOR BUSINESS. In establishing the new “Multicultural Family Resource Center,” GCDC plans to do a better job of recruiting our own homegrown young people to settle here with their families. And we will intentionally be recruiting newcomers and their families of all cultures, races and ethnicities – from across the state, nation and beyond.
The GCDC strategic plan for the initiative was carefully developed with public input from seven townhall meetings in early 2022; with direction from consultant Carlos Arguello, a native of Carroll and now a resident of Grimes, and with extensive discussions with leaders from the county’s businesses and local governments. Professional grant writer Becky Vonnahme put together a 100+ page application for support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development division. In early August, a $95,703 grant to GCDC was confirmed for a first-year of operation of the multicultural effort here, beginning late this fall.
GCDC has partnered with the Greene County Community Schools on the initiative. The school district will advertise, interview and hire an executive director for the multicultural program, provide office space, and use up to one-quarter of the director’s time for work with new students and families.
To pay for a second, third and fourth year of operation, GCDC is proposing a partnership among businesses, the school district and local governments to pay for the program – at an estimated cost of about $100,000 per year. Financial commitments are being sought starting next week.
GCDC is holding meetings of business owners and managers, leaders of civic organizations, and individuals who might be interested in contributing. An in-person meeting is set for Monday, Sept. 18, at 5:30 p.m. at the Career Academy adjacent to the high school, with Zoom meetings set for Tuesday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Those who want to attend should make reservations at the GCDC office, by phone at (515) 386-8255 or by email email@example.com.
GCDC plans to follow-up by making funding requests from the City of Jefferson and the Greene County Board of Supervisors.
“It’s a frustrating thing watching the population continue to shrink in these rural counties,” said Jim Ober, vice-president of operations at Scranton Manufacturing and treasurer of GCDC. “We’re fighting a tough, tough battle. Is the rural out-migration ever going to flip? How do you turn it? If you choose to do nothing, you’ll backslide. You have to stay ahead of the game, push and push some more to grow. Otherwise you’ll be slipping again.”
Jones, the GCDC president, concurs.
“I think people have to stop hoping, and start believing,” he said.
WHEN WORD GOT OUT, HOUSING CONTRACTORS BECAME INTERESTED. What seemed to be a perpetual blockade to workforce and population growth in Greene County – a lack of housing – is now being removed.
For way too long, Jefferson was averaging about three new houses being built per year. And there have barely been that many built yearly in the county’s seven smaller towns and rural area, combined.
But with campaigning, persuading, perhaps even begging – and attractive incentives – GCDC has lured several housing contractors to consider new construction and rehabilitation projects here. Those incentives include state tax credits, bargain land, even free land. And local banks are offering financial assistance to help homeowners in the “Highway 144 Corridor Housing Initiative” communities to remodel and improve their housing stock.
Andy Rowland, owner of Rowland Real Estate from the Des Moines area, in the last three years has built 17 townhouses and one single-family house in Jefferson. And the company has now been promised state tax credits that will help Rowland and his crew build eight single-family houses to sell and 12 townhouses to rent, all in the Water Tower Development in the northwest part of town. He said he’ll start construction on those in the next two weeks.
What got him to Jefferson?
“It was an overheard conversation,” Rowland said, involving John Rigler III, president and chief operating officer of the chain of Peoples Banks that has banks in Jefferson and Scranton. Rigler, who headquarters in Clive, is also a member of GCDC. “He was talking about trying to bring more housing to Jefferson, and I jumped in and said, ‘What’s that all about?’ John filled me in on the need, and I thought I should check it out. The numbers seemed to work and I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’ By now, I just really like the town, and GCDC has been very good and helpful to me with my projects.”
Also being finalized now is a proposal for the largest housing development in county history. Kading Properties, based in Urbandale, would use 28 acres provided free by GCDC to develop, build and rent 100 to 140 housing units in the north central part of Jefferson.
The City of Jefferson is considering whether it can provide an access street from the north, and Kading Properties plans to build the rest of the infrastructure, including streets, and rent most, possibly all, of the units. Some single-family homes are also a possibility. They’ve built and operate similar developments in several other Iowa communities – including Storm Lake, Marshalltown, Knoxville, Osceola and Madrid. That GCDC land, which is surrounded by businesses, has been farmed in recent years while the organization held it for some kind of future development.
“The thing that stands out to me about GCDC is that all their people we’ve dealt with seem united in their mission and goals,” said Karie Kading Ramsey, CEO of Kading Properties. “That’s extremely helpful. They know what they want and how to make it happen.
“One thing particularly comes to mind. We ran into some challenges on the land, and had to have it re-engineered. We’d been up to see it, and said we could probably talk it out over the phone, if we could get the right people on the call. With less than two days’ notice, GCDC had the nine people we needed, all on the phone at the same time during a business day. That was very impressive!”
With the Kadings, Rigler again proved to be a key negotiator for GCDC.
GCDC Executive Director Ken Paxton, shown here after the opening of one of the biggest economic development projects in the county’s history — the successful recruiting of Wild Rose Casino and Resort to Jefferson. The casino, with its expansive banquet facilities, and the attached Cobblestone Hotel & Suites, opened in July of 2015.
All that is a good reflection on how the organization works on most projects.
A keen observer, Rick Hunsaker, executive director of the Region XII Council of Governments based in Carroll, has “worked with GCDC a long time – 33 years – my whole time at the COG.”
He says GCDC’s volunteer members, officers and paid staff have been “supporters, collaborators, drivers, conveners, investors. I think these seem appropriate descriptions for GCDC.”
He thinks it’s become more effective over the years. “It appears there is more buy-in from the smaller communities and the board now. There appears to be more passion and direction. I could be wrong, but the drive to land a casino license was a gel point for the organization and helped to broaden its membership and resolve. Or it seemed that way to me. Once the casino landed, I believe there was access to cash for projects.”
THE DEEP ROOTS OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT HERE. The history of GCDC stretches back to the mid 1950s.
“That was a time when local farms were getting larger, and not as many farmers were needed as in the past,” said Rick Morain, the semi-retired Jefferson newspaper executive whose father Fred Morain was one of the founders of the first economic development group here. “A small group of community leaders realized that if those displaced farmers couldn’t find other jobs, they’d be leaving the county.
“The formed what they called an ‘industrial development’ group, and started trying to recruit light industry to locate in Greene County, companies that would create jobs here.”
Soon that new organization took the name “Jefferson Industries Inc.” Their first success at recruiting occurred in the spring of 1957, when they wooed the “National Manufacturing & Stamping Company” from Des Moines to locate in Jefferson, build a plant and start producing their “Ideal” brand livestock tanks.
Their second project in 1959 was helping a very small American Athletic, started five years earlier by Jefferson native Bill Sorenson, open a new plant on U.S. Highway 30 on the edge of Jefferson and begin building trampolines. The company is still here producing sports equipment used around the world.
And now, nearly 70 years after its creation, GCDC has helped dozens of other companies start up, move, expand and mostly succeed in Greene County, producing everything from stock tanks to trampolines, farm equipment, tofu flakes from soybeans for a time, 1875-vintage furniture, weight-lifting equipment, recycling trucks, information technology services and more.
In later years, as population decreases had major employers struggling to find enough workers, GCDC gradually shifted its focus from “industrial development” to “community development” – adding more recreational opportunities and amenities to make Greene County a more attractive place to live.
HOW THE DEVELOPMENT GROUP OPERATES NOW. Today, GCDC is in good condition, in membership as well as in finances, especially compared to non-profit economic development groups in other rural counties. Our public deserves to know that, as well as other details about how it operates.
Its offices are in the north end of the first floor of City Hall in Jefferson.
The organization is operating on a budget of $143,000 for 2023.
The City of Jefferson and the Greene County Board of Supervisors have each contributed $50,000 annually for several years.
Separately, the Grow Greene County Gaming Corporation, which holds the gambling license for Wild Rose Casino, has established a “special projects fund” of up to $100,000 for GCDC to use for development opportunities in a year’s time. If the organization spends, say, $40,000 of that one year, then Grow Greene County replenishes the fund back up to the $100,000 level for the next year.
GCDC members also pay annual dues, ranging from $850 for manufacturers, banks, utilities and services with more than 20 employees, down to $250 for individuals and $200 for non-profits and schools.
Kristin Russell, now on the GCDC Executive Committee and nominated to become vice-president in 2024, is already an influential leader in the organization.
What does the organization do with the various funding it receives?
“We’ve used a lot for developing housing,” said Paxton, the executive director, “specifically for the downtown upper-story housing projects, Andy Rowland’s projects, the White Apartments project, and the project converting the old Middle School into apartments.
“We also put a significant amount into helping New Way expand its plant in Scranton. We put money into supporting the project that renovated many of our downtown buildings in Jefferson. We spent a lot on developing our East and West Business Parks in the north part of Jefferson, and those have become the sites of several new businesses and now the Kading housing project.”
GCDC also paid for a 2-year long “Vision 2020” project that had local young professionals setting the future they want to see in the county. You’ll read more about that later here. Also covered were the costs of two years of research and planning that enabled the launch of the new multicultural initiative.
And GCDC has kept a “revolving loan fund” available with loans from $5,000 up to $25,000 to help new businesses get started.
There are currently 30 members who attend the monthly membership meetings on the second Tuesday of the month at midday. One meeting each quarter is in-person, the other two are by Zoom. There is round-robin reporting of business and community news and development possibilities.
Following the membership meetings, which are generally 45 minutes long, then a smaller Voting Board convenes for another 45 minutes or so to consider any proposals or issues that require official approval.
An even smaller Executive Committee of 10 members meets at midday the first Tuesday of each month. That committee includes the organization’s five officers, three ex-officio members representing local government, plus two at-large members from the membership.
The officers include current president Sid Jones, as mentioned earlier. The vice-president, expected to rise to president at the first of the year, is Scott Weber, a vice-president and business development officer for Heartland Bank. Serving as past-president is Norm Fandel, the director of marketing and business development for Midland Power Cooperative. The secretary is Rick Morain, who is the longest-tenured member of GCDC. And Jim Ober is treasurer, as mentioned earlier.
The ex-officio members of the Executive Committee are the Jefferson city administrator, now Scott Peterson; a city council member, now Harry Ahrenholtz, and a member of the Greene County Board of Supervisors, now Pete Bardole.
Peterson, new in his position after spending the early part of his career as city administrator in Lake View, has extensive economic development experience. After joining GCDC in recent weeks, he’s impressed. “This is certainly the most active economic development group I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “That it’s driven by volunteer members and business owners, and not just driven by the staff, is really interesting and engaging.”
The current at-large members of the Executive Committee are Kristin Russell, human resources manager for American Athletic, also known locally as AAI Spalding, and Tina Beaman, vice-president of Peoples Bank for Jefferson and Scranton.
Russell is nominated to become the GCDC vice-president in January.
“Until Tina Beaman joined us, I’d been the only woman on that GCDC Executive Committee for too long,” Russell said. “They all know it. I’ve told them that.”
Would she like to become president eventually? “Oh! That’s a terrifying thought! Let me get used to the idea of being vice-president first,” she said with a smile. “Actually, I hope Scott stays as president for a long, long time, and we can both ride off into the sunset at the same time.” (They are both 41 now.)
At the membership meetings, usually a fourth to a third of those in attendance are women.
“I’ve been a champion of diversity my whole life,” said Russell, who grew up in Grand Junction. “I’m talking about in workforce and population, as well as in GCDC. And you know, it means a lot more than just how people look. For example, it also means involving people of different socio-economic backgrounds. With diversity, you get different perspectives and ideas, and that’s always good.”
Ken Paxton, here on Zoom, and Jason Cerveny at headquarters of the Greene County Development Corp. in Jefferson.
GCDC has only two paid employees – Paxton, the full-time executive director since 2010, and part-timer Jason Cerveny, the administrative associate since 2011.
The 76-year-old Paxton is something of a dynamo. In his 14th year here, he is probably the longest-term executive director the organization has ever had. He plans to retire “in the next two years.”
He is a native of Sacramento, California, and a MBA graduate of the University of Oregon who did some doctoral work at Florida State and the University of Texas.
He was a touring rock ‘n’ roll musician, a keyboard player, in his student years and early adulthood. How long was he a rocker? “I still am,” he said. He generally performs solo now, playing “oldies rock” on his own synthesizers. For a time, in his late student years, he toured with a band “The Dominions,” who became good enough to serve as an opening act at concerts by such groups as “Paul Revere & the Raiders,” “The Kingsmen,” “The Dave Clark Five,” “Mamas & Papas,” and no less than the “Rolling Stones.”
And he was for a brief time playing with a Latino group “The Dartells,” when they had a Top Ten hit “Hot Pastrami.” For that long-ago distinction and the rest of his musical career, Paxton is being inducted this Oct. 8 into the “Midwest All-Music Association” Hall of Fame, in a ceremony to be held in Cedar Rapids. That’s where Ken and Darla Paxton have one home. They have another in Jefferson, where Ken generally spends Monday-thru-Thursday.
The first half of Paxton’s career was in marketing with large companies, often handling sports apparel for large firms like Russell Athletic, Adidas and Hanes. The second half of his career has been in economic development, including four years in Howard County in northeast Iowa before he took the Greene County job.
What does he like most about economic development growth?
“It’s never the same,” he said. “There are always new ideas. You’ve got to be creative. There are few rules. Sometimes you have to kind of make it up as you go.”
Rigler, the Peoples Bank executive and GCDC member, gives considerable credit to Paxton.
“You know, Ken sometimes leaves himself open to easy criticism,” said Rigler, “but he has incredible energy, enthusiasm and hustle that we’re lucky to have. A key difference between GCDC and other similar organizations is that members seem to realize that at some point, discussion needs to degenerate into work. Ken bridges the divide between talk and action.”
A CHAT WITH THE CURRENT AND INCOMING PRESIDENTS. There’s another good bridge in GCDC work today – Sid Jones and Scott Weber, the current and nominated-incoming presidents.
Jones has been active in development work in Greene County since he moved to Jefferson in 1983. He was among a group of 30-somethings back then “who thought there should be more transparency in the development group, and decided we’d get more involved. We helped expand the size of the board to 25 or 30 people.
“A real turning point, I think, was when we decided we needed to try to figure out who we are? Do we have a brand?” Jones continued. “We hired a consultant, and he came in and interviewed a whole bunch of local people. When he finished his work, we all gathered for his report, and he said that for the first time in his years of doing projects like this, Jefferson and Greene County seemed to be a place where there was no obvious brand. But there is something that most of us didn’t realize – there is a ‘balance’ here. He said the school system is an unusual one in which the arts are as important as athletics. Jefferson then had 13 different denominations of churches ‘and all are acceptable.’ There was no dominating nationality. We’re a melting pot. So he brought out a scale – like a ‘Scale of Justice’ – and said our theme should be, ‘We’re balanced.’ I’ve always thought that’s a pretty good description of life here.”
When Weber moved to Jefferson in 2014 from Cherokee, he wanted to get as involved in Chamber of Commerce and development work here as he’d been there for the previous 10 years.
Soon after he arrived, GCDC launched a transformative initiative – “Vision 2020.” The board hired Zack Mannheimer, a creative entrepreneur who’d started the Des Moines Social Club in the capital city, to be a facilitator for a group of 40 younger Greene Countians, most in their 20s or 30s.
“We didn’t go to the younger people to share our vision of the community with them,” Jones said. “We were there to ask what their vision was.”
Weber was among those in the young group doing the visioning and responding.
Weber and Jones.
“I remember the first of those meetings, when Zack asked us to use little sticky notes, write down ideas we wanted to see happen here, and post them up on a big board,” Weber said. “Crazy as it seemed, we all did that. Then slowly we began to merge the ideas.”
The top five things they all wanted to see were 1) a new high school, 2) better daycare, 3) more new housing, 4) better recreation opportunities including an aquatic center and more amenities for users of the Raccoon River Valley Trail, and 5) some form of a brew pub.
Those have guided GCDC’s work for the six years since the visioning was completed, and now all five of those recommendations have been accomplished or are in active development.
Weber, echoing Ken Paxton said “we’re on a roll right now, and we’re going to grow. One thing technology has taught us all is that if you don’t adapt to change, you’re going to go to the wayside. We want to stay on the front edge of change so we can continue being a vibrant community.”
“Yes, we’ll have some challenges,” he continued. “But when we have good people involved, we can handle them. I tell friends of my age and younger that they need to be part of this organization. This is about the future of their businesses and their community. Some think this must be a good ol’ boy system, and that’s simply not the case.”
What GCDC really is, is a group of 30 or more bright, experienced people who invest an amazing amount of their time, talent and treasure – all to help other people’s businesses and for the betterment of all in Greene County.
LET’S CELEBRATE! Greene County Development Corp. is inviting the public to a free event on Monday evening, Oct. 2, at Wild Rose, with an open bar and appetizers to celebrate recent economic development successes in the county. Festivities will begin at 6 p.m. Speakers will talk briefly about Jefferson’s designation as one of 11 “Thriving Iowa Communities,” about the Kading Properties housing development, about the multicultural initiative, and about the opening of a new Midwest Missions relief agency in Jefferson.
You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.