BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – In a regular update to the Lee County Board of Supervisors, county economic development officials told the board that today’s fast-moving economic development cycles mandate quick response and available property.
Lee County Economic Development Group’s CEO Dennis Fraise said being prepared in advance and having a site for prospective expansion or new business is what equates to growth in the county.
“When Debi Durham was in town last year she said ‘No property, no project’ because it starts with having a site. Things are moving so rapidly,… and right now there are 25 or 26 fully certified sites in the state already – that’s what the competition looks like,” he said.
A fully certified site according to Fraise, has gone through all the testing, environmental studies, ecological studies, and would have utilities available within a couple months. Those certified sites are first on the list when companies are looking to come to the state.
“You have to have the infrastructure, including natural gas, which was a stumbling block on a recent project – having the right amount of natural gas at the right pressure, which goes back to infrastructure,” he said.
He said once you have the infrastructure, that’s the baseline, and then you have to look at the labor pool and whether you have the workforce needed.
“If someone came to us and said we’re gonna drop a project on you and we need 1,000 employees, we’re gonna be hard-pressed to do that because our current industries already have open positions for good jobs. Then we get back to further social things like generational poverty and drug issues.”
Supervisor Ron Fedler said if the wages are there, the labor will come. He said companies want that guaranteed, but Supervisor Matt Pflug said companies are looking for a trained workforce, too.
Dana Millard, the group’s Economic Development Project Manager said LCEDG is working hand-in-hand with industries and educators to create a workforce pipeline for manufacturers.
“We’re seeing a hybrid of that,” Millard said. “With not only existing business, but new business attraction, they want that pipeline available and they will train to their specific industry.”
She said they are looking for laborers with basic knowledge and she pointed to the group’s Basic Industrial Maintenance program with electrical and mechanical endorsements through Southeastern Community College.
Millard said 44 students graduate from that course this summer. The program was designed with input from six Lee County industrial companies.
Supervisor Rich Harlow said then it comes down to what the company can get in local, state, and federal incentives.
Fraise said if all the states agreed to not give incentives and level the playing field, that would be great, but in reality it doesn’t work that way.
“If a project is going to go either to Illinois or Iowa, and Illinois says we’re going to give you X then Iowa has to say we’ll give you X-plus” Fraise said.
Fraise said the county has seen more activity for expansion and new projects in the past six years, which he said was exciting. He said non-disclosure agreements have been signed on those agreements.
Fraise said 43 percent of leads LCEDG gets now are coming through utility partners and BNSF, where in the past almost all leads came from economic development offices.
The group has redesigned their website to accommodate those fast moving requests and Millard said the bounce rate has been reduced and people are staying on the site longer looking and what Lee County has to offer.