SIREPA is no “Mickey Mouse” organization – Beside the Point

I wanted to write this week about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ spitting match with Disney World.

A move that could backfire on the 2024 presidential candidate as 77,000 employees and the largest single site employer tussle over questions of gender identity. I started reading to get up to speed on what this nonsense was all about because I was just politically kerfuffled thinking about a Republican Governor getting after one of the nation’s largest corporations.

As there may very well be snow in hell, one thing tied this to a local commentary for me.

The Disney World campus is basically it’s own municipality and I didn’t know that until this week. They can float revenue bonds, hire their own police and fire departments, generate power, and build without local and state permits. They also have a billion dollars in debt that would be passed to taxpayers.

It’s one of those quirky economic development tools where this corporate entity that according to U.S. News & World Report generates about $1,500 in tax relief for every single Floridian, gets a little autonomy to grow.

When I read that I immediately thought of two deals that were struck this week between Lee County, Southeast Iowa Regional Economic & Port Authority, and Danville Telecom.

The deal will generate 57 miles of fiber optic cable up through the west central side of Lee County to Hwy. 16, then east and south along the highways to create a redundant data loop for Danville Telecom. The infrastructure will provide service to more than 120 unserved or underserved homes in the county, and is being built to allow for further growth and faster speeds. It will be able to hold 100 mbps upload and download speed when at full capacity.

That’s pretty cool, but what’s cooler is how it came together. The process brought front and center the power of the port authority.

This is the same group that helped facilitate the purchase of the KL Megla building that is now the center of operations for Lee County Economic Development Group and home to the Lee County Career Advantage Center.

It’s also home to PV Pallet, a company that builds state-of-the-art pallets for solar panels. The relationship is an incubator currently, but plans are in place for a free standing facility on property owned by SIREPA on the LCEDG footprint. There’s also a company restoring a historic oceanliner, and the Lee County Robotics team on site. The Fort Madison High School Construction Trades is on hand rebuilding the inside of the facility.

SIREPA stepped in this fall to help navigate the marriage of some America Rescue Plan Act funds at the county and state level to help bring the broadband project to fruition.

Administered by Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission Director Mike Norris, SIREPA was able to secure funding from the county as part of its $6.5 million allocation, to trigger an Iowa grant through the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

The county allocated $1.95 million to broadband in its planning for use of the U.S. Treasury allocation to the nation’s counties. Norris stepped in on behalf of SIREPA and asked for the full 30% of the county’s broadband funding on behalf of Danville Telecom.

That money triggered about $3.8 million from the state OCIO to help fund the project.

This just scratches the surface of what SIREPA’s capabilities are. This group is a municipality in the eyes of the state. They can’t levy a tax, but they can issue revenue bonds, engage in financing, own and lease property – even hire their own police force.

According to Iowa Code 28J, the authority enjoys and possesses the same legislative and executive rights, privileges, and powers granted cities under chapter 364 and counties under chapter 331, including the exercise of police power.

The group can also create Foreign Trade Zones, which typically allow duty-free exporting as a benefit.

At Thursday’s meeting SIREPA approved agreements with the county on the usage of the ARPA funds, as well as an agreement with Danville Telecom where SIREPA will actually own the fiber optic backbone in Lee County for a period of 10 years.

SIREPA will also receive just under $1 million in lease payments from Danville Telecom over the 10 years that can be used for additional broadband development projects in Lee County. When coupled with the LCEDG facility, SIREPA has recently stepped in as a viable and unique economic development mechanism in Lee County.

The group was created by resolution of the cities of Fort Madison and Keokuk, and Lee County after the state approved legislation allowing the creation of authorities within the state in 2005. SIREPA was formed in 2006 and was the first authority in the state.

SIREPA can own and operate not only water ports, but intermodal ports away from the shores of waterways within the jurisdiction of the authority, which is defined by Lee County’s borders.

On Thursday, Mike Hickey, the authority board’s vice chairman, said the broadband effort was just another project that shows the value of the port authority to the local economy. He said the group needs to get back in front of the people to talk about the successes of the authority and future opportunities.

Norris said the rest of the state is looking at what the authority is accomplishing and how it’s getting done.

“As people learn more about port authorities, guess who they are calling – SIREPA,” Norris said.

This group is one of those groups that deserves our attention. The start of the organization came slowly as everyone involved learned what the state had empowered with the 2005 legislation. But this group is now involved in more than $6 million in local investment and that’s just happened in the past 18 months.

They’ll receive about $950,000 in lease payments over the next 10 years to help leverage more development, and they can jump in on other projects as they are identified.

This group it seems is quickly becoming part of the economic development fabric of Lee County, and we believe we’ll be glad they are.

One thing we’re not currently glad about is the maze that is the path through Fort Madison. Frustrations are already high with the intersection at 18th and E. This type of progress always comes with a temporary price, so let’s breathe through it. But that’s Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is editor and co-owner of Pen City Current, and can be reached at charles.v@pencitycurrent.com.

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