BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – When looking solely at building and equipment investment in Fort Madison for 2017, city economic officials saw more than $68 million in investments for the year.
Fort Madison Partners Executive Director Tim Gobble said that figure is comparable from industries reporting in 2016.
In addition to the capital investment, Gobble said 2017 also saw over 140 new jobs created in the city at $16/hour or higher.
“For 2017, over 140 new jobs were created at $16/hour or more,” he said “A few were under that, but the majority are more than $16. These are actual numbers from industry. When I reach out to our industry on these types of things I go in asking for full time employment numbers and then categorize them as, $15-$18/hour, $18-$19/hour, and then $19 and over. Those are numbers I can use for incentives and grants I can apply for through the state incentive programs.”
Gobble said because Lee County is categorized as a stressed county, therefore providing the area smaller wage thresholds to overcome for state incentive money, these figures help show the growth and potential of the area. But he’s quick to lay credit at the feet of those private companies and their leadership.
“A lot of people can take ownership of these number towards job growth at a particular industry or the amount of money they invest, But we talk about it as a strength of our economy,” he said.
He said the numbers he’s reporting do not include all the industry and businesses in town so the numbers are probably higher than what he’s collected.
The other accomplishments of the year include working with groups like Lost Bear Coffee to get a branch opened up in Fort Madison and continuing to work with the Baxter Sports Complex on its programming.
“We’re looking at different ways to streamline their processes,” Gobble said. “We have a new director that is very eager to change some things around like working closely with the YMCA and identify opportunities to get more youth involved, or maybe help buy down some costs for youth sports and other different ways to enhance some of the programs that are already in place.”
Jeff Woodside took over operations of the sports complex this year after Wes Holtkamp left to pursue other professional goals. The complex is in its third year of operation on the city’s west side.
DOWNTOWN BUILDING RENOVATIONS
Gobble said he’s been staying in close contact with Kyle Galloway at Barker Financial, the owners of two buildings currently under renovation – the Lee County Bank building and the Cattermole Library. The group also owns the Sears building, but plans were put on hold with that building pending completion of the other two.
The Fort Madison Partners groups are looking at possibly relocating to the first floor of the Cattermole when it is completed,
Gobble said a snag with windows in the Lee County Bank building is holding up work temporarily.
“The windows in the Lee County Building are a hold up. The federal historical groups (SHPO) haven’t signed off on the design. And until that is signed off on and the upper residential areas are complete, their hands are tied on renovating the commercial space.” he said.
The Partners recently completed a three-year strategic plan for the umbrella group including Fort Madison Economic Development Corporation, The Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce, and Fort Madison Main Street.
“What came out of our strategic plan is our relationship with the city. We need to make sure that is stronger and keep open lines of communication.”
Gobble said he would like see increased beautification efforts in 2018. One way to help with this initiative is Partners is spear-heading a paint-a-thon in conjunction with Kempker’s True Value Rental and Community Action of SE Iowa. The idea is to identify 3 or 4 homes our first year in the spring to paint. There will be guidelines and an application process with information coming out in February- it will be a city-wide program. He also said he’d like to open a line of communication with the city to look at the current code system on abandoned and dilapidated properties and see if there is an opportunity to enhance what is already in place.
“I would like to look at what other communities are doing and see if there is an opportunity out there to push some of these owners to get the projects completed.”
Gobble said the most recent plan he has in the office dates back to 2008 and the marina is still a top priority with Partners along with looking at ways the feasibility study of improving the deck approaches of the swingspan bridge may affect the marina. The feasibility study for the approaches (both Iowa and Illinois) would help identify how to reestablish truck traffic on the bridge- to allow heavier truck traffic- but that’s an entirely different animal and a costly one at that.
“Although those plans for the marina we have in the office are nice, they may be a bit aggressive. We could do some pieces of the plan, but there are some sections that we could possibly wait on. Let’s fill up what we have empty and then grow from there and focus on getting it to a point where it’s something that people want to come to first,” Gobble said.
He said there have been individuals interested in development of the marina. “We need to make sure what is coming to us is a viable approach- but the City will need to take the lead on it as it is owned by the City currently. One area we need to look at is the designation of the marina as being labeled a “safe harbor”, which causes other hurdles with that designation getting major improvements done with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
“To jump back to the bridge study, this will be a City and State- both Iowa and Illinois- project but I know we’re going to try and take an active role, especially on the FMEDC side, we want to at least get the bridge study going and then see where it goes from there.”
2018 is shaping up to be an identification and return on investment year for first year Chamber Director Savanna Collier.
“We just want to focus on the members themselves. Find out what they want – what they need and then take that information and see how we can improve on return of their investment,” Collier said.
She said the recent strategic planning showed there was an identity crisis and that people were showing confusion about what role the Chamber played aside from Partners as a whole.
“I want to, at some point, ask our members what they need from us and go from there. I don’t want to pull from thin air and hope it has some benefit for them. Because I’m new, it gives me a leg up and when I go into talk to them I can say, ‘What kinds of things are you looking for from us. What hasn’t happened in the past that you’d like to see’. I think the big thing is return on investment for our members. I think that’s the biggest thing for us for the next year or so.”
She said she also wants to improve marketing for the Chamber’s networking groups such as Young Professionals and Business Women Connect.
“The programs we do have we want to market better and get more involvement. Those types of networking programs will help with our identity crisis. The Chamber gets lost because people think we only do things with Main Street, but the Chamber encompasses everything, industry, retail, finance, service etc. There are so many things that come out of this office itself, I see how it’s hard to understand who does what,” Collier said.
Gobble said the group needs a simpler definition.
“We need to get to the point where people see us as Partners is just the house we live in. I’m economic development, she’s Chamber, and she’s Main Street, Not sure we’ll ever get there, but that’s simplest way to look at it,” he said.
Main Street Director Cassie Gilbert said 2017 has been a great year for the downtown and listed several bullet points that point to the progress and success of the Fort Madison Main Street program.
She said 18 businesses have either opened or completed a successful succession transition, the downtown upper story apartment work is coming along. She said that’s important because there are very few apartments that come available each year and they are very popular.
“Our downtown building owners are also reinvesting in themselves. For example, Score Properties, owned by Rebecca Bowker, recently installed solar panels to increase efficiency and lower electric bills for their commercial enterprise and their residential tenants,’ Gilbert said.
Fort Madison Main Street received a grant from MidWestOne bank for trimming downtown trees and the purchase of downtown items such as trash cans.
“Main Street also worked with the historic commission to create vinyl banners to be put up in empty storefronts to help enhance the image of downtown and our connection to the past,” she said. “And our Promotions Committee created a Self-Guided Tin Ceiling Tour, helping us to promote our historic building and the preservation that our downtown building owners are dedicated to.”