BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Lee County is facing what Dennis Fraise is calling “stiff headwinds” and asked area leaders to be a part of the force that pushes ahead.
During a regular update breakfast at Comfort Inn & Suites in Fort Madison, Fraise, president of Lee County Economic Development Group, said the group had to pivot during the pandemic. He then outlined the the current status of economic development efforts for about 35 county, community and business leaders Tuesday morning.
Fraise pointed to several important data points in Lee County that need to be addressed.
One of those was child neglect and abuse rankings. The county has the most reported incidents of child neglect in the state ranking 99 out of 99 counties. The county is 79th in reported incidents of child abuse.
“Think about that. We have the highest incidents of child neglect in the state of Iowa,” Fraise said. “That’s awful.”
He also pointed out that one in four people have left Lee County in the past 50 years. The county is also ranked 88th in educational attainment after high school and 40% of high school students do not have a plan after high school.
“Governor Reynolds said 70% of all jobs in Iowa in the next decade will require training after high school. We’re at about 24%. That’s a headwind.”
He said the county is in the top 10 counties in being least healthy.
Fraise said those numbers come front and center when companies are looking to expand as they do Google searches on the county.
“We have to do better. We didn’t get hear overnight, we’re not getting out of this overnight,” Fraise said.
He pointed to Bridges out of Poverty effort to help break the cycle of generational poverty, and the LCEDG’s Grow Lee reaching out at the grade school levels.
A countywide strategic plan will soon be created to improve the neglect and resilience of families in Lee County, led by Brianna Kramer-Reisberg at Lee County Health Department.
“We need to connect all of you to this effort because honest to God, there’s no way we want to be number one in child neglect and top ten in child abuse. We can do better and it’s going to take all of us to do better,” Fraise said.
“This is the hard stuff, not the fun stuff. But you look at all those numbers, all those headwinds, we just have to be better. So make sure you’re plugged into all those efforts.”
Fraise said the people in the room are the calvary, but no one else is coming.
“You gotta saddle up and be part of the solution,” he said.
LCEDG’s Project Coordinator Dana Millard pointed out how much the county was able to do in the past 16 months as the pandemic all but shut down most regular in-person economic development efforts.
She said the pandemic brought attention to retention as the COVID virus impacted just about every facet of employment in the county.
One of the projects LCEDG worked on was creating a virtual tour of the Southeast Iowa Development Center in Keokuk that can be accessed online for those looking for office and lab space.
LCEDG also hosted a virtual tour of Hendricks River Logistics, a coal exporter in Lee County for more than a century. The industry is slowly drying up so LCEDG fostered a virtual open house that attracted more than 30 business owners, through a partnership with BNSF.
“Even though we had to pause for a little bit, we grouped. We came back stronger than ever. And I’m excited to not go back, but go forward learning what we have over the past year, so we stay relevant,” Millard said.
Fraise said some of the efforts now are focusing on helping get certified sites in Keokuk, near the former Carbide site, and a certified site in Fort Madison on the west side of town, and in Wever near the Iowa Fertilizer Plant. He said the Iowa Economic Development Authority has a saying, ‘no property, no project’.
Certified sites are sites that are shovel ready for developers looking to move operations into Iowa.
Fraise also said the joint education center is something the LCEDG isn’t giving up on. He said all the affected parties, including all county public school districts and Southeastern Community College, are back at the table.
“It’s not going to be easy. It’s not, but we’re all at least back at the table discussing the project.”
He also pointed to several projects that the county worked on over the past two years, including a byproduct company that needed a large supply of natural gas that couldn’t be provided.
“We cannot provide enough natural gas for another major project like Iowa Fertilizer or like the project I just described. There’s simply not enough gas available locally,” he said.
Efforts are still underway with the players involved in that like Iowa Fertilizer and natural gas companies to solve the issue, but he said it may cost $25 to $30 million.
“This is one our top properties to discuss this with our utility partners and how do we solve this. It’s solveable with money.”