By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Aug. 31, 2022 — A group of 18 Latino business owners & entrepreneurs from Denison, Storm Lake, Perry, Carroll, Coon Rapids and Omaha spent Tuesday, Aug. 30, in Jefferson and Greene County on an invitation from Greene County Development Corp. to come see opportunities here for re-location, expansion or totally new businesses.
The tour was part of GCDC’s “Nueva Vida en Greene County” initiative to grow the workforce and population of the county. That initiative is focused on the impressive growth happening in the Latino population all over Iowa and the nation.
Leading the tour were Carlos Arguello, the consultant GCDC has contracted to lead “Nueva Vida,” and his business partner & mother Lorena Lopez, the editor & publisher of La Prensa Iowa, the Spanish-language newspaper that circulates all over the western half of the state. They spent hours during the day, taking turns doing translation of the thoughts and questions from English speakers and Spanish speakers alike.
Interest seemed strong among the Latinos about expanding or re-locating to Greene County, and they provided excellent feedback on the financial assets they’d bring and what incentives would be most meaningful to them.
“We toured 12 businesses or buildings, seven of them that we walked into and five were drive-by or walk-by visits, all in Jefferson,” said Arguello. “We also visited some vacant lots that GCDC owns, some major employers, the high school, the project converting the old middle school into apartments, the community center, and the Early Learning Center that’s almost ready to open.”
There were also conversations about the possibilities for businesses and homes in the county’s smaller communities, too.
Part of the visiting Latino entrepreneurs who bused to Greene County on Aug. 30 to check out business opportunities here. They turned the bus ride to Jefferson into fun, singing folk songs from Mexico, El Salvador and Nicaragua. They reported their favorites were their renditions of “Mujeres Divina” (“Divine Women”) and “Mexico Lindo y Querido” (“Mexico, Beautiful & Beloved”).
After the visit, did any of the visiting entrepreneurs seem ready to make a move?
“As of last night, we already have one who reached out to Ken Paxton (the GCDC executive director) to set up an appointment to talk,” Arguello said Wednesday. “I fielded three calls on my way home about the open lots and some of the buildings we toured. And today I had two business owners reach out about coming back, touring again and negotiating leases.
“Based on the level of interest and excitement I saw yesterday, I’d say conservatively that we have two or more businesses that will be pulling the trigger in the immediate future, with a few more likely to consider us in 2023. I also know that there will be a few folks from the group applying for open positions with local employers in the next week. One of the participants told me that they loved what they saw from the town and asked if I could help him find housing rental options so they can start making plans to move.”
Consultant Carlos Arguello briefs Latino entrepreneurs on what they’d be seeing. This first stop was in a building that formerly housed a Dairy Queen.
GCDC’s Paxton raved about the tour.
“In all my years of economic development work, I’ve never seen a one-day event like this where 18 business people came into a rural community with an interest in opening up here,” Paxton said. “They have heard what we’re doing in Greene County, and they’re interested in being part of it.”
I serve as chairperson of the “Nueva Vida” steering committee, so I joined in the welcome. And I delivered the strongest invitation I could — in English sprinkled with attempted Spanish — for the group to come be pioneer leaders in our effort.
Economic development director Ken Paxton (in the white shirt) described the spacious & available front half of the Aureon building.
What more do we in Greene County need to do to make it clear that newcomers – specifically Latinos or people from other cultures that would be new here – are welcome?
“That’s a big question that requires more thought and analysis,” Arguello said.
“We need to be able to talk about our incentives in a clearer and more succinct manner. We need to be able to be more creative and assertive with our incentive. For example, the City of Jefferson offers a $150,000 forgivable loan for one business. What if we could break that down into three forgivable loans of $50,000 each, so we could have three times the participants in the program?
“Comments were made yesterday about the incentives that left people wondering and confused, and that led to me answering questions and re-assuring folks that there were miscommunications. It’s our incentives that sell this program, so again, we need to deliver our messaging in a very assertive and crisp manner. And we need to close the sale.”
City of Jefferson building official Chad Stevens describes the incentives available to business building owners and purchasers.
Two more work orders from Arguello: “We need to spend more time on education and cultural training,” to help the majority White community be comfortable with a more diverse population. “And lastly, as we all know, we need affordable housing options.”
Is it surprising to anybody else, like it’s been to me, that Latino-owned business are considering moving to Greene County before the Latino population here has started significant growth? I asked Arguello about that.
“The recruitment of Latino businesses without a change in the Latino population is about two things in my mind,” he said.
“First is what I call the ‘snowball effect.’ When we bring one business here, that business will bring employees, who will hopefully bring families, and will also be models for other businesses that follow. If this happens. the population starts to snowball.”
A former insurance office offers a cozy business space with a great location on Lincoln Way, just off the square.
Then Arguello made a bigger point.
“Many of the businesses that were here yesterday, as well as other ones we are recruiting, don’t rely on a Latino clientele,” he continued. “In fact, many of the business models in yesterday’s group rely more on Caucasian customers than any other group. That being said, these business owners know that the idea and urgency for them is to get on the ground floor now, so that they can get established with a White client base. Then when the Latino population grows, that is a market that will be easier for them to capture and bring into the fold.”
What was clearest to me on Tuesday was that the interest of Latinos in what we’re doing in Greene County is clear. And the potential here for significant growth, enhanced prosperity, and new vitality is tremendous.
Mother & son, business partners, entrepreneurs and important leaders in the life of western Iowa — Spanish-language newspaper executive Lorena Lopez, of Carroll & Denison, and Carlos Arguello, who bases his Latino IQ company in Grimes.
There seemed to be real interest in the building that formerly housed the Stitch quilt shop, which recently moved into a newly-renovated home northwest across the courthouse square in Jefferson. The former home sits between two tourist attractions — the Welcome Center at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Gardens & the Greene County Historical Museum.
Carlos Arguello describes the possibilities in a former dry cleaners and paint store.
Lunch, information and Q&A in the business center of the Sierra Community Theatre.
Lorena Lopez translates for art & culture leader Deb McGinn, telling about the big role public art is playing in new growth in Jefferson and Greene County.
Pat Richards, coordinator of the docents at the Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower, gets the group ready for elevator rides to the top of Jefferson’s iconic bell tower.
You can see a looooong way from up there, including seeing the future!
Chit-chatting 140 feet up!
Rosie Tucker, co-partner in the outstanding Sensibly Chic home decor store, describes business opportunities in Jefferson.
You can become involved in this initiative, or get more information, by contacting chairperson Offenburger, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (515) 370-2659 (cell). You can also comment on this story directly, using the same email address, or by using the handy form below.