A vision for the future
LE MARS — “Vision to Vitality” was the topic for a presentation by the Iowa Business Council (IBC) in Le Mars on July 26.
The event, attended by local business people, city officials and local legislators, offered a conversation on issues, opportunities, and challenges facing the state and regional economy.
Joe Murphy, executive director of the IBC, led the morning meeting and conducted a question and answer session with five panelists: Rob Bixenman, mayor of Le Mars; Barbara DenHerder, CEO, Sioux Center Chamber of Commerce; Brandon Huisman, vice president for enrollment & marketing at Dordt University; Mike Wells, CEO/chief engagement officer, Wells Enterprises; and Dustin Wright, CEO, Floyd Valley Healthcare.
The Iowa Business Council is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose 20 members are the chief decision makers of the state’s largest employers. Mike Wells is one of the members.
Bolstering the Economy
Since its establishment in 1985, the IBC has worked to elevate Iowa’s economy. The council’s primary functions are global through leadership, research and advocacy.
The forums are meant to spur community conversations that engage local leaders on their efforts to transform a vision of growth into reality.
It also offers the IBC a way to learn how different regions are creating solutions to challenges impacting opportunity.
Murphy said the IBC looks at economic growth, education and workforce, governance, health and wellness, and demographics and diversity.
“We use this data to provide unbiased and unfiltered comparisons to legislators, policy makers, nonprofit leaders, to see where we may need to improve and invest,” Murphy said.
Keeping the Population Growing
He pointed out Iowa’s economy is much more diversified than even its citizens realize.
Some of the issues the IBC is focusing on is getting businesses and students involved in work-based learning; workforce and availability of workers; and a need to improve health and wellness including elevating rural health care.
One topic of concern is a stagnating population.
“We are actually losing population, especially in rural communities,” Murphy said.
“How can we attract people to our state and how can we get them to stay here? How do they go from living in a community to being a part of the community,” Murphy said. “I think Le Mars is such a great example of providing that community spirit. The rest of the state has a lot to learn from this community.”
Another topic to address is immigration reform and looking to use immigration as an economic tool.
Converting the Workforce to Residents
The first question for panel members was to provide a snapshot of their current workforce and any economic development projects underway.
Bixenman said, “Being the Ice Cream Capital of the World and having Wells, we have jobs, we need people. We need affordable housing.”
He noted the Wells workforce has transitioned from 2/3 living in Le Mars to 2/3 living outside Le Mars, and the community should seek to get them as residents.
“It’s an important aspect to jump on. We can let it pass, or jump on those people that are coming in town each day and to live here. If they live here, enroll kids in school, spouses that need jobs, it’s a big opportunity, the problem is finding a place for them to live. Affordable housing is a problem to fix,” Bixenman continued.
Meeting Workforce Demands
DenHerder said Sioux Center is seeing growth in industrial and residential properties.
“Workforce continues to be the concern,” she said.
She cited the new nursing home built by Sioux Center Health, which couldn’t open for six months because of a lack of help of RNs and CNAs.
“The masking requirement for nursing homes was also a concern. That’s a barrier for people,” she said.
She continued that Sioux Center has seen a lot of people moving back to the community.
“They may have had connections in Sioux Center or Sioux County, they liked living in Iowa, or they liked the education system, the strong healthcare. I think we have an opportunity to market our community,” she said.
She added Iowa Tourism is doing a fantastic job at marketing, hitting it out of the park for Sioux Center, Sioux County and Iowa.
Learning to be Resilient
Wells said with the pandemic a new word, resiliency came forward.
“Keeping people safe, and then keeping business sustainable, we (Wells Enterprises) continue to have a huge economic impact in the surrounding area. We’re the the second largest employer only to Tyson, within 30 miles,” he said.
Wells Enterprises regrouped after 30 percent of the workforce left in 2021 following the pandemic.
“We’re in the people business, that changed the way we do things. The masking thing was huge for us. We took masks off and overnight activity went up, and attitudes went up,” he said.
That is a concern, however, as there are additional waves of COVID.
Collaborating with Educators
“Sioux Center, Sheldon, Orange City people are reinvesting back in their own communities, not only for themselves but for their community,” he added.
Huisman said the growth curve in education is going down, but schools like Dordt and Northwestern are poised for record enrollment.
“We are really excited about the economic impact of students to the region,” he said.
He pointed out a number of graduates stay in the area following mentorships.
“We rely heavily on Le Mars, Orange City, Rock Valley and Sioux Center for apprenticeships,” Huisman said.
“If it’s just classroom knowledge, we fall short. Students ought to be able to gain wisdom they can put to work on Day One,” he said.
Sometimes entire families, after making a campus visit, make the choice to move to Sioux Center and work remotely.
Wright said the pandemic created a staff shortage, but it actually started before that.
“This is the first time in my career that nurses were leaving the job and health care, and not coming back.That’s really made us internally partner with Dordt, Northwestern and NCC, now starting a patient care program, get CNA degree, move through to RN,” he said.
On the economic development front, Wright points to the $9 million expansion underway for specialty clinics.
“It’s an opportunity to keep people close to home and have dollars spent here,” he said.
Bringing Quality of Life to the Forefront
Quality of life is another aspect of community vitality.
DenHerder said she likes the grants coming from state government.
“People can find jobs anywhere, so they’re looking for quality of life. We have seen that when we put the Siouxnami up. It was a vision of our former mayor, and we now see people coming from all over,” she said.
Wells pointed to the recent grant Siouxland Initiative, a development side of the Siouxland Chamber, which brought in a $7 million for a trail system to connect points in Sioux City to the PlyWood Trail which will run from Sioux City to Le Mars.
Huisman agreed that trail systems are an asset that people like to live near and will travel to for a destination.
Looking to the Future Leaders
Workforce development takes collaboration with employers.
“We are fortunate to be able to partner with community colleges, private colleges and state universities to host medical students, first year physicians, and have on-site training opportunities,” Wright said. “We can showcase our organization. It requires a lot of extra effort by our team, but it’s worth it.”
DenHerder said Sioux Center is raising the awareness to students of all jobs available in the community.
“One of the pieces missing was the students were hearing about it and the businesses were connecting but the teachers were not. So we initiated a program for our teachers, to get them to tour the industries, and do the tours around the Iowa Core program. They are familiar with the Iowa Core but they didn’t know there were employable skills in it,” DenHerder said.
“They learned there was team building, guides would tell them, and it has made drastically changed how the teachers teach in the classroom. It has been a really strong success because now the educators have that relationship with the businesses in the community and they can bring that up in the classroom learning,” she said.
At Dordt, partnerships with industries have students working in the business three days a week and classroom instruction two days.
With that in place, students are able to move from a two year to four year program while embracing the advantages of the region.
Promotion is Key
Panelists then addressed how their communities are promoting businesses and encouraging people to stay and work there.
Bixenman said Le Mars has developed a community focusing on tourism with such events as the Hometown Christmas started by the Wells family, Ice Cream Days, and The Browns Theater and the Wells Ice Cream Parlor.
“It brings in thousands of people and gives us an opportunity to showcase what we have here,” he said.
Huisman said the Sioux Center Chamber started a “homecoming grant,” to students.
He points to Aaron Van Beek, a Sioux Center High School graduate and Eagle Scout, who graduated from Dordt and stayed to be a second grade teacher.
“He also started Midwest Honor Flights and does that on the side, alongside his teaching,” he said.
Van Beek in turn, continues to mentor Eagle Scouts, and talks with prospective college students about opportunities.
“We have a nonprofit, Le Mars Area Betterment Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars to fund projects in the community such as the skate park and supporting the PlyWood Trail,” Wright said.
DenHerder said Leadership Sioux Center has helped keep people in the community.
“It’s a way to get people engaged in the community and tell the community story. A lot of partnerships have been made,” she said.
Sharing the Iowa Story
Telling the Iowa story and that of communities is also important, Murphy noted.
“Over the last five or six years, the state has been engaged in a marketing strategy with great videos and commercials playing around the country,” he said. “Sometimes we suffer from the ‘Iowa nice’ attitude and not brag. Social media makes targeted marketing easier, too.”