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Iowa Great Lakes area booming, leaders say

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Business is booming in the Iowa Great Lakes area in northwest Iowa as solid manufacturing, tourism and real estate growth combine to help the area emerge unscathed from the economic downturn.

Last month, Dickinson County had the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2 percent, outpacing every other Iowa county and even job-rich cities.

Tourists attracted to the area's sparkling lakes - Big and Little Spirit Lake, East and West Okoboji, Upper and Lower Gar, and Minnewashta - brought an estimated $139 million punch to the local economy in 2002.

"Really, all of Iowa has good labor," said Chad Shyrock, executive director of Iowa Great Lakes Corridor of Opportunity, an economic development partnership between Dickinson and Clay counties. "What makes us unique is the Lakes. . . . It's the quality of life."

Dickinson and Clay counties - which includes Spencer, Spirit Lake, Milford and Okoboji -have added 850 new jobs over the past five years, Shyrock said.

Companies that are growing include Pure Fishing, a fishing equipment manufacturer; Polaris Industries, the maker of ATVs, snowmobiles and Victory motorcycles; and Rosenboom Machine & Tool, which manufactures hydraulic cylinders.

The Great Lakes' tightening labor pool has the companies scrambling for workers.

Kraig Vos, general manager of Rosenboom Machine & Tool, which has facilities in Spirit Lake and Sheldon, said the Spirit Lake plant opened about the time the economy soured in 2000.

Vos said the company has hustled over the past four years to add new customers. Now that business is picking up for new and old clients, Rosenboom is considering contracting out some work until it can beef up its work force.

"In the last year, we hired over 100 new employees and right now, we're looking for an additional 100 workers. We'll hire them as soon as we can find them," Vos said.

The story is similar at other growing companies.

"We struggle with finding enough people," said Patrick McIntyre, chief executive of Pure Fishing, the rod, reel and lure maker in Spirit Lake, which has hired 160 new workers over the past year.

"Go out in our facility now, and you'll find a well-educated, conscientious work force. They're phenomenal," McIntyre said. "But finding new workers is a challenge."

The need for skilled workers has cities searching for ways to draw new families to the area, which already has several recreational opportunities such as boating, fishing, hiking and biking.

"About three years ago, CEOs in the area told us they expected to add 1,000 employees over the next five years, and we'd better get cracking on housing," said Peter Hegeman, Spirit Lake's city administrator.

Spirit Lake decided to spark construction of affordable housing by covering the cost of streets, sewers, sidewalks and other infrastructure in a division called Southern Hills. The city expects construction of about 280 homes that cost between $85,000 and $105,000.

"They've been selling faster than they can build them," Hegeman said, adding that about 47 homes have been constructed so far.

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