The Pilot Editorial

Monday, February 10, 2003

SLADC beyond the smokestack chase

Like beauty, economic development seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

Not so many years ago, the sole purpose of Storm Lake's development commission, and that of nearly every progressive city, was an all-out assault to lure new industry - any industry - to town.

Groups like SLADC spoke of their budgets as "warchests," and that's what it was - a battle by any means necessary to outdo the next town in begging a CEO to build their plant locally.

For a handful of Iowa towns, this approach paid off handsomely with successful new industries that have proved to be good corporate citizens. A few others got some industry and may today wish they hadn't. In more than a few cases, communities just spent thousands to woo companies all over the country with little or no results.

The approach changed for Storm Lake several years ago. After studying their community, SLADC leaders sharpened their approach. They would not take a shotgun approach for any industry jobs. They would invest in approaching the specific kind of companies desired in terms of jobs, wages, stability. All of our industry was ag-related at that time, mostly meatpacking, and diversification and complementary industry was needed. A spec building was built at a considerable price, because the going wisdom at the time said you had to have one to compete. It was vacant then, and is vacant now. Still, the era had some success, adding the likes of Tuscarora, Friesen and Marketink.

SLADC soon came to see opportunity still differently, and emphasized efforts in fostering job growth in existing industry, pushing entrepreneurial efforts and business incubation; all for the good.

And judging from CEO Chris Nolte's words to the county supervisors recently, SLADC is taking one more wise swerve today.

For the past year, it has worked toward "visioning" in every town of the county, and it is beginning to pay rewards. Perhaps more than any time in memory, the county seems united in its shared dreams and goals. Nolte said he'd even like to see SLADC's name change to more accurately represent the county as a whole, like Buena Vista Partners in Progress.

After all of these years, we aren't out chasing smokestacks any more.

From the meetings in the various towns, it is evident that what is on people's minds does not measure success in industrial labor jobs, but in quality of life - housing, education, child care, social gathering places, health care, downtown entrepreneurship.

This too is economic development. It may be a better community park, a new coffeeshop to keep people in their small town, the daycare center or senior citizens center that residents need.

Not big factories for the skyline, these, but jobs and contributions to their town's economies nonetheless.

At the same time, it has served us well to combine SLADC with the local chamber of commerce, as we learn that part of attracting new business comes in supporting those that we have, and helping people learn to serve their communities even better.

The marriage has already given us events like a home and ag show, bridal and prom show, Business of the Year awards and others.

With communities in the county working together, Nolte envisions one day that tourism could pass meatpacking as the top employer here.

You wouldn't have heard that kind of talk out of the old SLADC warriors years ago. Of course, they would have been too busy traveling to the coasts in search of smokestacks.

Part of SLADC's work will always be searching for new industry, and that is as it should be. But it has become a lot more.

Smokestacks aren't what Storm Lake and Buena Vista County are about, and our economic development group is wise to realize it.