I stopped in for breakfast with the movers and shakers of Lee County Wednesday morning.
Everyone from business owners, to educators, to politicians and economic development players sat over some hot food and hot coffee to listen to an update from Lee County Economic Development Group officials as to what’s happening in our little corner of the world.
It’s one of the first things I’ve done since the death of our daughter on Feb. 20. I’ve been picking limited engagements where I can get in and out pretty quickly and steal some news. It’s uncomfortable for me,… and assuredly uncomfortable for others. Losing a child is terrifying, dark, and difficult to talk about. But it’s ok. I love talking about her.
But I wasn’t the only one harboring a bit of emotion Wednesday morning.
LCEDG President and CEO Dennis Fraise talked passionately about the state of the workforce of Lee County, and the path we’re headed down. He talked about what’s currently being done to address local employers demand for productive workers, efforts to rebuild the county’s workforce, growing it’s tax base through attraction – and, not to go all Harry Potter, but talking about that which can’t be talked about.
I know from brushing Fraise repeatedly for information about this rumor or that rumor, that these folks are tight lipped. But he professionally and pleasantly dismisses me, and then offers to buy me a sandwich.
The typical jovial Fraise was a bit more bristly on Thursday. As he thanked everyone for their continued partnership and touted the 50/50 public/private funding model in place, he talked about the “winter” that’s coming as baby boomers retire. The winter being what could be a deadly cold spell in the labor market where Lee County ranks 88th of 99 counties in residents without post secondary certifications or educational achievement.
He talked about how 40% of the students in Lee County don’t know what their career path looks like, and how the county has lost almost 9,000 people since the 1980 census, with more census data looming this year.
This is a man who, short of pom poms and a pleated skirt, is one of – if not the – biggest cheerleader for the county. He helped organize a World Record Tulip plant, has helped lead LCEDG to prestigious state, national and world economic development recognition, and ushered in Bridges Out of Poverty to address generational poverty. All while co-creating a nationally recognized economic development podcast that is gaining national attention.
He called that ‘winning the battle – but losing the war’.
“I think we could be.” he told the group of about 50 at Quality Inn and Suites.
He said contributions and investments to LCEDG efforts are at the highest level, and it’s critical to keeping the momentum going.
“We take your investment very serious. Whether it’s taxpayer dollars or private money – wherever it comes from is a big deal for us,” he said.
“Six or seven years ago we were 100% funded by the Lee County Board of Supervisors. If you look at our organization today, we’re a 50/50 partnership with the Board of Supervisors giving 40%, Keokuk and Fort Madison each at 5% and private money at 50%. That’s a true private/public partnership and we’re pretty excited about that.”
He said economic development is a team game and almost every industry in Lee County supports LCEDG efforts.
“That’s a report card we take a lot of pride in.” Fraise said.
But he said the county has to keep its collective foot on the accelerator and raised a quote from former boxer Mike Tyson who’s famously said, “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth,”
“Do you want to be the fist – or the face,” Fraise asked.
“This is very real. When I think what’s going to happen in the next 10 years, and think about the struggles in retaining our industry, this is what it looks like. This is how brutal it’s going to be, and if you don’t think it’s going to be brutal – start reading.”
But Fraise said the LCEDG’s efforts gives companies in Lee County the confidence to invest.
He pointed as evidence to the recent expansion at Scotts Miracle Gro and ConAgra Foods. Scotts currently has more than 100 job openings and ConAgra will soon be adding 90 jobs to it’s production lines in an expansion announced earlier this year.
He paraphrased Abraham Lincoln who convinced his three top political opponents to join his campaign right after being elected president.
“We’re better together. And we’re better when we walk and act together, and when we work together,” Fraise said. “He knew that was the right thing to do.”
Fraise said there are major projects that Lee County is still being considered for that just can’t be discussed because projects can blow up if information seeps out. A Joint Education Center for Lee County, to help address skills gaps, is taking up a lot of time and resources. But is invaluable to industries and educators in the area – and is finding its path.
LCEDG has been active in STEM programming at all levels of county educational systems. They’ve also been instrumental in bringing career exploration models to all grades of students, not just in Lee County but in southeast Iowa.
So the emotion is welcome. Right now there’s a lot to be emotional about. Budgets are tight, viruses as freakin’ everyone out, and death has come to our door.
But I went for breakfast because the connections here are important, and I like the passion of those folks and you should, too. They not only work very hard to protect the 4,000 manufacturing jobs and $250 million in annual payroll, but help connect the dots for other companies looking for a new home.
I saw passion and confidence not only on the faces of Fraise and Dana Millard, LCEDG’s Economic Development Project Manager, but in the faces of the investors in attendance as well.
These are bright people here, and they see the forest through the trees. The news isn’t always good, but it should make us feel good they see that and are proactive with it.
Sometimes the news is good – and there’s no better reflection of the effort than that.
Lee and I are trying to do just a bit more every day to bring our product back to full operation, but it’s a tough go. We hope to have some expansion news of our own this spring, but for now…that’s Beside the Point.
Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.