By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
JEFFERSON, Iowa, Sept. 1, 2023 – Oh my goodness, it is working!
Diversifying and growing our workforce and population is triggering economic growth here in Greene County, exactly like we were told and shown it would do. And exactly like we’ve been telling our good people that it would do.
If I sound like I can hardly believe it myself, there is some of that.
After all, when your people have had to watch 100 years of population decline in their county, this spark of new life seems almost incredible. Suddenly, it seems, housing developers are coming in and wanting to work with us. We’re realizing that rural decline is not mandatory for rural America. And that’s big.
No, we have not discovered magic here in our county in west central Iowa. What we are doing is re-firing the idea that worked 100 years ago – welcoming newcomers.
Immigrants, refugees, our own young alumni returning home, move-ins from neighbor counties and states – please come join us. And, most important, bring your families and become permanent Greene Countians. We’ll be telling you soon when we’re ready for you.
You’ll like this place. It’s happening!
Maybe our new motto should be: Greene County, Iowa – Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open for business!
Well, maybe we have to earn that.
A great day in late summer of 2022 when Latino business owners from all over western Iowa and Omaha came to Greene County, looking for locations to move or expand their businesses here.
I’ve written twice before in my columns about the multicultural initiative of our Greene County Development Corporation (GCDC) – the non-profit local economic development group that has a membership of all our major employers and many of us who want to help businesses build and grow. When they asked me two years ago to become chairperson of the steering committee for the new initiative, I quickly said yes. I’m now also a member of the GCDC board of directors.
The reason I’m so into this is because I’ve seen it work before. I’ve lived it. That was in the five years I was in Storm Lake, 1999-2004. That northwest Iowa community, as you probably know, is one of the most ethnically, racially and culturally diverse places in Iowa. It is also at an all-time population high. It is vibrant and prosperous. “The World’s Hometown!” we called it for a while. It is not only one of the most interesting small cities in Iowa, it is also one of the most fun.
As that huge change in Storm Lake evolved, especially in the early stages, it was happening to that community instead of happening with a plan, with direction and with assistance.
We in GCDC have had the advantage of being able to “go to school” on what’s worked and what hasn’t in Storm Lake, Perry, Denison, Hampton, Sioux Center, West Liberty and other newly-multicultural Iowa towns.
Another difference: The meat packing industry is what has triggered the diversification in all those other towns. In Greene County, our economy is driven by the farming, manufacturing, healthcare, and hospitality industries. For nearly two years now, we’ve been building the plan that can fill the 300-plus open jobs our major employers have.
What we’ll be offering are jobs that come with pay, working conditions, benefits and retirement programs that are significantly better than meat packing jobs. We also have a totally renovated and expanded medical center, a brand new Greene County High School and renovated lower schools, an Iowa Central Community College Career Academy that will be our leader in training and re-training new employees for our employers, and – hallelujah that we can now add this to our list of positives! – nice and new housing with a range of rental and purchase prices that our jobs here will sustain.
After GCDC launched this initiative, we spent the first year in painful patience as we researched, had written, submitted and waited for a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program. That would have helped fund our initiative for three years or more.
We had developed our initiative with much public input from seven different “town hall meetings” held in all the towns of our county. We were guided by consultant Carlos Arguello, who was born in Nicaragua but grew up in our neighboring town of Carroll. Arguello’s company LatinoIQ has a successful track record in helping companies, communities and even political campaigns recruit diverse newcomers.
We gave our initiative the name “Nueva Vida en Greene County,” which evolved from suggestions from the public during the town hall meetings. As we said then, while we planned to welcome people from all cultures, we knew that most of our newcomers would probably be Spanish speakers, since the Latino population is the fastest-growing demographic in both Iowa and the U.S.
Early this year, we learned that our application for the $500,000 USDA Rural Development grant was rejected. Believe me, we pouted.
But we went right back to work applying for a $100,000 “Rural Business Development Grant” from the same agency, using suggestions we received from USDA officials.
In mid-August, we learned our new application was approved, for $95,703 – enough to fund a first-year of operation for the multicultural initiative.
Sid Jones, president of GCDC and recently retired as president of Home State Bank in Jefferson, said then that “the USDA grant further demonstrates and supports the importance of the diversification of our workforce and community, as we strive to find employees for our businesses, and reverse the declining trend in population that we have had for the past 100 years!”
He said the funding from the grant will enable the opening of a “Multicultural Family Resource Center” – the new name of our initiative. We decided to use that, at the suggestion of members of the public, to be clear that while we know Latinos will be a majority of our new population, we will welcome people from all cultures.
The grant will also cover the salary of a full-time director of the program. The position will be advertised soon in hopes that the director can be hired and working by late fall.
The Greene County Community School District, which is partnering in the program, will handle the hiring of the director and will provide initial office space and equipment.
Meanwhile, Jones said, GCDC officials are working to “solidify the commitment from our businesses and industries, the City of Jefferson government, and the Greene County Board of Supervisors for an additional three years of funding for the program. Success will not happen in year one, but the foundation for success can be laid through the development of a resource center.”
All those entities have been involved in the planning and development of the multicultural initiative.
Visiting Latino business owners checking out an available business location in uptown Jefferson.
Meetings have now been scheduled for Sept. 18 and 19, and that’s when we of GCDC will begin seeking local financial commitments for years two, three and four of the operations of the new Multicultural Family Resource Center. What we’re really asking Greene Countians now is to step up and invest in the future of our own communities.
As news about GCDC’s proposal for workforce and population growth has spread, there has already been amazing response – especially in new housing development.
For years, Jefferson, a town of 4,500, was averaging about three new houses per year.
Now, two builders from the Des Moines area have contracts for up to about 160 new living units – apartments, duplexes and single-family houses. Many will be rentals, some will be for purchase. Another Des Moines-area contractor is considering options on available land for several larger homes. Another apartment developer, from Des Moines, is about to start a complete renovation of the 100-year-old former high school building, on the edge of downtown, to about two-dozen upscale units. And local contractors are busier than they’ve ever been before.
We’re also seeing new interest in expanding those building efforts to the other small towns in Greene County, especially since three of those towns have large industries operating there – with up to 30 percent of their current employees commuting from outside the county. Many of their workers say they’d move if houses were available.
Another significant boost: Jefferson was recently named one of 11 “Iowa Thriving Communities,” a new designation by the Iowa Finance Authority and the Iowa Economic Development Authority. That designation means more state financial assistance will be made available to developers with new projects in those communities.
It’s been a long time – like a century! – since there’s been this much interest in new housing projects in Greene County.
Why is it happening?
Community leaders have recognized that we just have to grow, both our workforce and our general population.
And what we’re already seeing is that growth is contagious.
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