BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Now that’s he on a first name basis with Lee County Economic Development Group CEO Dennis Fraise, Iowa Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg settled into a state economic development update Thursday in Fort Madison.
The two joked with each other prior to Gregg’s presentation about the formalities, but the relationship was clearly evident as Gregg complimented and thanked the industrial community of Lee County at LCEDG’s Salute to Industry.
Gregg said the county is “punching above its weight class” because the county represents about 1% of the state’s population but 2% of our state’s manufacturing jobs.
“I’m here mainly to say Thank you for your continued investment and confidence you have in the state of Iowa. Thank you for the jobs you provide and the incredible impact you have on your communities,” Gregg said.
Gregg said the state is working on several initiatives, but started with a recap of the budget.
He said the state closed the books on the budget last week for fiscal year 2019 with a cash reserve of more than $700 million, plus a $289 million surplus.
“I think that’s the kind of fiscal responsibility Iowans expect from their government and we’re very proud to have delivered on that,” he said.
“I don’t mean to be a bad neighbor, but look to the east and see if you see that kind of fiscal responsibility.”
He said the state is also balancing other priorities as well. He said Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the largest income tax cut in Iowa history in 2018, while making record investments in priority areas.
He said the K-12 education budget represents about 45% of the state’s general fund budget and when colleges and universities are factored in, that number climbs to 55%.
“I’m not saying we can’t continue to do better, but let me tell you when you make something 55% of your budget along with so many other competing interests, that’s making education a priority and we’re very proud of that,” Gregg said.
He said the state also has more jobs than people to fill them. He used a 2.5% unemployment rate which he said was about 45,000 Iowans. He said just the Iowa Workforce Development site had 65,000 job listings.
He said he and Gov. Reynolds have made rural Iowa a priority in their administration. Both Gregg and Reynolds come from small rural communities.
“We know what it feels like to live in a rural area or in the corner of the state and feel like you’re forgotten,” he said.
“Gov. Reynolds has tasked me to lead the Governor’s Empower Rural Iowa Initiative and I’m proud to do that.”
“It’s part of who we are. We come from these small towns and we want to see opportunity and prosperity available there, but it’s also about who Iowa is as a state.”
He said he’s seeing success in rural communities and the state is focusing on practical challenges such as housing and connectivity.
“In rural Iowa we have a shortage of market rate housing that’s available and that’s tied to that number one problem – work force. It’s hard enough to find someone with the right skills for the positions and it’s even harder when there isn’t a nice place for that employee to live.”
He said connectivity is important in almost every aspect of our lives.
“Let me tell you, folks my age and younger aren’t going to live in a place where they can’t be connected at all times,” Gregg said.
He said the state was focused on encouraging rural broadband build out in the rural parts of the state. Fraise is a member of the Connecting Rural Iowa taskforce.
“It really struck me at how normal this seems that we’re all together and there’s a real comfort level with all that’s happened. Six years ago that wasn’t necessarily the case but today we all sit in this room and we all know each other,” Fraise said.
“It’s amazing what happens when you take the time to learn from each other and listen to each other and that’s been the fundamental change that’s taken place over the past six years we’ve been here.”
Lee County has been getting its fair share of attention from leading state development officials. In the past year, Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham was in the county. This past summer Gov. Kim Reynolds appeared at an LCEDG event, and on Thursday Gregg presented at the Salute to Industry.
Fraise talked about ongoing discussions for a Joint Educational Center in Lee County that would help increase training and education to help fill labor gaps in the county. LCEDG is part of that conversation along with area educators and industrial partners.
“Making the joint education center a reality will require everyone in this room to come together,” Fraise said.
“We’re going to have to step out of our comfort zones. Industry and education will come together in ways we never imagined six years ago. There’s going to be give and take… there’s gonna be compromise…and companies are going to have to write checks, to be honest.
“Failure is not an option, the stakes are simply too high.”
Gregg told the room to continue the efforts to bring the Joint Education Center to Lee County.
“We know this has been successful in other parts of the state. I would encourage you to think differently about how to get Iowans ready to fill these positions.”