OPPORTUNITY²: SOUTHEAST IOWA SHOWING STRENGTH IN NUMBERS A REGION OPEN FOR BUSINESS
Southeast Iowa stands out as a part of our country where manufacturing is expanding. This growth can be attributed to the efforts of Oppportunity2— a marketing collaborative comprised of economic development entities from nine counties that have come together for the greater good. In most places, manufacturing is stagnating, and even worse, retracting. This region has a long history of manufacturing, with a tradition of innovation. Some would say that the synergy of larger, urban areas is necessary for catalyzing development; however, most assuredly, small towns in rural Iowa are places where big ideas in manufacturing are generated. Nationally recognized companies like John Deere, Musco Lighting, Vermeer, JBS, and many others have a history of success and expansion in the area. From the subsectors in the industry like food and beverage production, to the machinists complementing the local manufacturing, roughly 215 manufacturers call Southeast Iowa home.
Though economic development is often a competitive field, in the Opportunity² region these economic development directors have come together to support one another’s efforts at community betterment. John Schroeder, Executive Director of Davis County Development Corporation says, “it is easy to get so focused on day to day activities that one loses contact with the bigger picture.” For him, Opportunity² is his “connection with diversity, new ways of thinking, and challenging ideas.” This group builds strategic approaches to issues by coming together to address everything from housing, to workforce development resources. They maintain a directory of all the manufacturers in the region for the industries. Southeast Iowa manufacturers already serve one another, often setting up complementary production nearby. The directory serves to bolster more business between the region’s companies. In addition, the Opportunity² website is a one-stop-shop for site selectors, innovators, and companies looking to expand production. Sharon Stroh, VP of Industrial Development for Greater Ottumwa Partners in Progress, appreciates focusing on the “cooperative nature of our businesses.” She says, “we exchange prospect leads if our own county proves to not be the right fit.” The website has links to the different counties where one can find the available buildings, shovel-ready sites, incentives, and workforce studies from all nine counties. In business, it is often repeated that there is strength in numbers, but rarely does one see a region where the economic development offices operate so collegially. Existing manufacturers like C&C Machining have benefitted from this organization by receiving incentives for expansion into a secondary county, and new manufacturers continue to show interest in Southeast Iowa.
ELEMENTS OF SUCCESS
Iowa has a notoriously low cost of doing business. The state is motivated to foster manufacturing, offering generous incentives for new companies, and to grow existing ones. Beyond this, the central location with access to road, rail, barge, and air transportation position it as a place conducive to exportation. The success of manufacturers in the area also comes thanks to the famous Midwestern work ethic. It is a workforce that can be depended on to deliver. The average worker will stay at the same company for 12 years, exemplifying loyalty to employers and communities alike. According to the 2020Laborshed, 80.5% of Southeast Iowa’s talent pool has education beyond high school. Though Iowa consistently stands out with high SAT scores, and an excellent high school graduation rate, developments in the manufacturing industry have led to new demands on the workforce. The state of Iowa has spent $260 million on job training programs since 2006. Opportunity², in response to the needs of its industries, has partnered to develop and initiate support for job training. In addition, these counties all have initiatives underway to further provide solutions.
GENERATING A WORKFORCE
Opportunity²’s Educators in the Workplace program strengthens the connection between manufacturing and teachers. Companies are able to communicate the industry-wide needs for creativity and problem-solving directly to the educators. Teachers gain knowledge about opportunities for students to work in clean, state-of-the art facilities, for lucrative pay with great benefits. Opportunity² economic development directors partner with Indian Hills Community College (IHCC), Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), and regional manufacturers to give tours to K-12 educators. In the responses written by educators about the program they repeatedly stated they gained “greater respect and appreciation for manufacturing jobs.” Many of the counties have additional programs focusing on developing student interest in local manufacturing. In Lucas County, the Chariton Community School District was selected to receive the Iowa STEM BEST grant. With the grant, educators and business leaders work together with students to grow Iowa’s talent and close the skills gap. STEM BEST is one of the state programs instituted to support the Future Ready Iowa initiative. The goal is for 70% of Iowa’s workforce to have education or training beyond high school by 2025.
There are two community colleges, and three private colleges in the area with extension sites present in all the counties. DMACC offers a Workforce Training Academy, and has partnered with manufacturers like Vermeer to bring welding certification opportunities to Marion County. Central College, also in Marion County, has an engineering department. IHCC plays a particularly important role in offering job training courses in rural areas. William Penn University, along with IHCC, in Mahaska County, work closely with Musco Lighting, allowing this industry leader to be involved in preparing a workforce suited to the needs of today’s positions. Musco even provides programming in high school classrooms, generating interest and infusing the learning environment with real world applications. The Sigourney IHCC service center in Keokuk County offers a range of courses through the Iowa Communications Network, allowing students in this rural area to attend classes virtually in their own communities.
SMALL TOWN SYNERGY
Southeastern Iowa, known for its picturesque landscapes and rural beauty, offers a respite from the overstimulation of larger cities. Many who return to the area speak to the alienation of larger cities, compared to these Midwestern towns composed of tightknit communities where one can actually be involved in crafting the town itself. The spaciousness alone— owning a real house, with a real lawn— is a draw for many. Disillusioned with positions in metro areas where salaries are eaten away by the ever-rising cost of living, people return, or choose to stay where the cost of living allows them to get a financial foothold. Many articles will make it seem as though the only alternative to a large city is the suburbs; however, the other option: small towns, offers an appealing authenticity that the suburbs never can, no matter how closely the design replicates real places.
Southeast Iowa is composed of counties with towns varying in their offerings of culture, and recreation. Fairfield, in Jefferson County, stands out as a town with unheard of diversity for a community its size, offering a town square featuring restaurants serving cuisine from many cultures, a civic center with performers from around the world, while still serving up a healthy portion of Americana. The towns of Centerville, in Appanoose County, and Albia, in Monroe County, offer up a life of all the best of traditional small-town life, where people celebrate history, shop the square, and welcome newcomers. Pella, in Marion County, holds tight to the Dutch aesthetic and culture. What connects all these communities within Southeast Iowa is that they are places where people hold each other up— places where every day, entities like the economic development boards make strides in growth, retention, and improvement for the manufacturing industry.
The manufacturers— large, medium, and small— have had support along the way in these counties. Working together to serve one another, fostering new companies along, finding the right fit, building the right fit, and providing aggressive action to solve problems, the partnering counties of Opportunity² have directors in place that go above and beyond to ensure Southeast Iowa is always open for business, and opportunity ready.
Ottumwa, IA 52501