By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, March 26, 2023 – From the time 18 months ago when I agreed to take a leadership role in the Greene County economic development group’s bold initiative to diversify and grow our workforce and population, I’ve been clear and open about what I think my role is.
As chairperson of the steering committee, I’ve said, my job is selling this initiative to the public, most importantly, the people who already live and work here.
—Lending some vision and experience, based on my decades of writing about Iowa communities in transition, and making sure our collective vision is big enough.
—Using my contacts, and I’ve been blessed to have a lot of them, to help make this all happen.
—Continually reminding our county’s people just how good they are and what they’re capable of doing.
—Writing about it.
Last Monday, a panel of us talked about the Greene County initiative on “Julie Gammack’s Iowa Potluck” session on Zoom.
Let me tell you more now.
What we’re trying to do here is actually working. Not nearly as fast as I perhaps naively hoped, but we’re on the right path.
The Jefferson Police Department, led by Chief Mark Clouse, is expecting to swear in its first Latino officer soon. The Greene County Schools, which have 25 or more students of Latino heritage, have proactively hired teachers qualified to teach “English Language Learners.” Superintendent Brett Abbotts says the school plans eventually to have “navigators” on staff who can help new students and their families coming from other countries and cultures adjust to their new surroundings here.
But we’re also at a very critical stage for this initiative, and it’s time for other major players in our county to step up their interest and involvement.
Greene Country, located about 50 miles west and a little north of the Des Moines metro area, is one of the most productive places on Earth, in terms of our primary industry, agriculture. Grain farming leads our ag production, but livestock production has increased dramatically in the last decade. We have no meatpacking jobs, but there are plants in surrounding counties. There is one ethanol plant within the county, and two others and one bio-diesel plant just beyond our borders.
Our industrial base makes us unusual among rural counties. We have five large manufacturers – all in different kinds of metal fabrication – that were all home-grown, although two are now owned by global corporations. Two other major employers are the recently-rebuilt and expanded Greene County Medical Center and Wild Rose Casino & Resort.
All those large employers are growing – or capable of it. But post-pandemic, they have a total of 200 to 300 jobs unfilled. There’s a variety of positions available. The pay for many of the manufacturing jobs is $20 per hour and above. There are excellent employee benefits and retirement programs. The jobs are safer, more comfortable, more interesting and more doable for a career than meatpacking jobs. But with unemployment running below three percent in the county, there’s really no one else here to hire. Already, 30 percent of our workforce commutes here from surrounding counties. Some of those workers would like to move into Greene County and shorten their drives, but we’ve had almost no available housing.
What are we going to do about it?
The Greene County Development Corporation (GCDC) – our economic development organization – decided to make a stand against further decline. We are recruiting among all populations, but especially among those that are growing in Iowa and surrounding states. The fastest growing population demographic everywhere in the Midwest? Latinos.
“When you learn about the Latino culture, you realize that we share a lot of the values of rural places, especially here in Iowa,” said Carlos Arguello, of Grimes, a Latino growth consultant who’s worked with us two years, a native of Nicaragua who grew up in Iowa. “Most Latinos want quieter places, safer places, with more space. Latinos typically have strong faith and strong family values. And we are a very entrepreneurial people. We’ll be starting and developing new businesses. And we grow the communities when we settle there.”
We want to recruit whole families, who want to live in our county seat town of Jefferson (pop. 4,500), our eight smaller towns and farmsteads in our countryside. Of course, we still want newcomers to have proper documentation to be in this country. We can help with settlement, housing, training and filling out applications with employers.
I said earlier we are at a critical stage for this initiative. I think we need to accomplish several significant things as soon as possible to 1) bring our initiative to full life, 2) demonstrate to all our people that this is happening and that it is going to be successful, interesting and even fun, 3) that there’s almost nothing to fear about growth and diversity, but there’s much to fear about further decline.
–We need to thank Sid Jones, the just-retired president of Home State Bank, for serving as general chairperson of this multi-cultural initiative while he also serves as president of GCDC. It’s rare for a public initiative – potentially a controversial one – in a rural county like ours to have a leader as visionary, financially-savvy and experienced as Jones is. He’s been behind nearly every good thing that’s happened in this county in the past 30 years.
–We need to hire Sara Monroy Huddleston, of Storm Lake, ASAP. She is one of the best-known and highly-regarded Latino leaders in the state, and she’s interested in becoming the full-time, permanent director of what we expect to call our “Multi-Cultural Family Resource Center.” Huddleston, a native of Mexico who came to Iowa for college, served three terms on the Storm Lake City Council and, for 30 years, has been one of the real leaders in that community’s fantastic diversity and growth. She has been consulting with us without pay on our Greene County initiative. She likes it, wants to help transform a whole county and is willing to move here with her husband Matt Huddleston, who does IT-related work for a healthcare company. We simply cannot pass up this opportunity.
–We need to continue developing relationships with building contractors, specifically two who’ve already come from the Des Moines area. One has built about a dozen new residences in Jefferson in the past year and has a similar number underway or in the planning stage. The other is doing research and estimates on an even larger development. These building projects, and others to come, have huge economic impact possibilities county-wide.
–We need a headquarters for the Multi-Cultural Family Resource Center. It should be on the courthouse square in Jefferson. It’s where the director’s office would be. It should include a retail operation that offers products, snacks, music, performers and artists celebrating all our heritages, those we’ve known a century or more and those we’re just learning. It should have a classroom/meeting room, a board room, perhaps quarters for a “small business incubator,” maybe even a couple apartments. The perfect location is the “Homestead” building, which has been vacant for nearly two years on the southeast corner of the square in Jefferson. Have you noticed that the big mural on the exterior wall needs repainting? Let’s have a new mural there that also celebrates all our heritages. What would be perfect is if some philanthropist would buy that building, donate it for our initiative, and let us name the center in honor of her or him. That would give our initiative – and our county – a great boost
–I want to get started on what could be the biggest building our multi-cultural initiative inspires, an indoor soccer arena, for use by all ages and all sports, as well as trade shows as warranted. Sioux Center in northwest Iowa has just completed such a facility, a multi-million-dollar, air-inflated structure developed by American State Bank in cooperation with the City of Sioux Center and Dordt University. Ours should be developed adjacent to both the new Greene County High School and Wild Rose Casino & Resort. If we build and operate such a facility correctly, it will be a major attraction with strong business potential.
–Beginning this year or next, I want someone to organize a tour for Greene Countians to the home area in Mexico of Gil Lepe, who with Teresa Brown, owns and operates the extremely popular Casa de Oro Mexican restaurant in Jefferson. Hopefully we can persuade Gil and Teresa to serve as our tour leaders. Their Jalisco province has produced a number of the Mexican people who already live or have lived in Greene County and other communities in western Iowa.
–In coming weeks and months, we should schedule three events I’ve been talking about too long: 1) A performance or two in Greene County by the acclaimed Denison High School Mariachi Band, which represents that diverse community so well; 2) asking executives at the Pella Corp. plant in neighboring Carroll, to tell us how they worked with our consultant Carlos Arguello on adding 200 Latino workers in the last couple years, and how that’s worked out for the company, and 3) a visit by our multi-cultural initiative leaders, plus leaders of Greene County churches, with the pastors of a half-dozen Latino churches in the Des Moines area, a meeting which has been enabled by Jefferson native Michelle Book, a Jefferson native who is president & CEO of the Food Bank of Iowa.
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