Community-Based Economic Development
Midwest Partnership Economic Development Corporation is a non-profit economic development organization in West Central Iowa that was first formed as I-80 Development in 1992. Adair and Guthrie Counties came together to form the organization in order to handle leads and prospects in business development along the Interstate.
The organization became Midwest Partnership EDC in 2003 with the addition of neighboring Greene County, and later expanded to include Audubon County in 2010. The organization is funded by each of the four counties, cities, community development and chamber groups, as well as private businesses. Economic development in rural Iowa takes a group effort and Midwest Partnership is a great example of just that.
Rural Iowa boasts ample space, easy access to resources, low cost of living, and unique communities as key marketable assets. Economic development organizations are shifting gears when it comes to business attraction, focusing on community development and positioning in order to stand out among the competition. The idea is that a great place to visit is also a great place to live and work, which makes it a great place to start or expand a business. Fortunately, the communities that make up Midwest Partnership Economic Development Corporation in West Central Iowa understand the value of unique places and are working together to promote the region instead of competing for attention and resources.
Midwest Partnership EDC leads the economic development efforts in Adair, Audubon, Greene, and Guthrie Counties, conveniently located between Des Moines, IA and Omaha, NE, as well as centrally located between the major metropolitan areas of Minneapolis, Chicago, and Kansas City, via I-80 and nearby I-35. Easy access to railways, interstate systems, and international airports make this region an ideal location for business, and attractive to the targeted industries of agriculture, advanced manufacturing, data, and information technology. Working together as a region, the area has seen tremendous growth in the past ten years, especially in the value-added sectors such as bio-sciences and food processing.
While the combined population of the four counties is relatively small, the potential labor force is 134,184 people, with commuters driving an average of 28 miles to work each day. As with most rural areas, healthcare and education are the largest employers. Other leading employers include Cardinal Glass Industries, a window manufacturer in Greenfield, John Deere in Paton, garbage truck manufacturer New Way in Scranton, and Owner Revolution Inc. in Adair, as well as one of the Nation’s Top 25 Pork Powerhouses, AMVC in Audubon. The area is fortunate to have corporate headquarters for several companies within the region, as well as serving as branch locations for others.
Just as important for rural economic development, Midwest Partnership EDC focuses on business retention efforts as a priority. Midwest Partnership regularly visits with existing companies in the region to discuss changes within the business, products and services, the industry, workforce challenges and opportunities, community services, quality of life and other topics that may affect business. These visits not only allow the organization to assist with individual growth or challenges of a specific company, but also helps build stronger business relationships within the community, as well as identify regional trends to help drive priorities and programming.
Recently, the largest challenges for the Midwest Partnership region have been strengthening its skilled workforce and improving housing options – both identified through the business visits and both improving through ongoing local and regional initiatives. Midwest Partnership facilitates partnerships with local schools and businesses to establish programs to introduce students to the many career opportunities in the area. “Businesses opening their doors for tours, internships, and in-school work experience programs encourages the pursuit of skilled trades and develops our future workforce. This helps portray our community as a place to live and work after graduation,” states Sarah Gomez, Executive Director. Nearby community colleges have also assisted by providing the schools with programming for the students and the general public, as well as worked with businesses to create training programs for workers, specific to the needs of an individual business.
Although the region has experienced a population decline in the past, a growth in population is expected for the region in the near future as the Des Moines metropolitan area continues to grow. Sarah Gomez has been with the organization for almost 10 years and has seen the continued growth. “We are on the outside ring of Des Moines, and we are starting to see more families moving west to escape the metro area, seeking the small town atmosphere and still maintaining a good quality of life.” New residents attracted to the region, paired with new and expanding industry in the region have spurred growth in housing. Cities and local development groups are working together to boost the available housing stock by facilitating the development of new houses, duplexes, condominiums, townhouses and rental properties, as well as rehabilitation and infill building projects.
Also encouraging growth in the region are the community school districts and regional hospitals. Access to quality education and health care are essential for raising a family, and many prefer the individual attention achieved with smaller class sizes and the personal care provided by local health systems. Other local amenities such as swimming pools, movie theaters, recreation centers, and numerous city, county, and state parks, make this region a great place to live with the balance of a rural setting and the proximity to a larger city, and all of the benefits that come with it.
Area residents rely on thriving locally owned and operated businesses. “Many of the region’s leading employers first started as a small, family operation, so we see value in investing in small business development and encouraging entrepreneurship,” Gomez said. Midwest Partnership has worked with the University of Northern Iowa for the past five years to develop a Regional Entrepreneurship Program to assist start-ups and small businesses, extending business retention efforts beyond the largest employers to the main street businesses as well.
Notable retail and tourism-related businesses that add to the vibrancy of the region and have experienced growth include Carver’s Ridge in Stuart, a custom engraving business that has expanded to a second retail location; Deal’s Orchard in Jefferson, a fifth-generation family-owned apple orchard that has expanded its seasonal offerings to value-added products, a pumpkin patch, and corn maze; RVP~1875 in Jefferson, an historical furniture making shop with the largest known collection of hand tools in the country; and Mōglea in Audubon, an artful stationery brand that has grown into an internationally known product line including hand painted and printed greeting cards, home décor, and much more.
Points of interest throughout the region include the Warren Cultural Center in Greenfield, a former opera house that has regained its iconic stature as a performance space after a $6.2 million restoration; the Mahanay Bell Tower in Jefferson, a fourteen-story carillon bell tower providing visitors a unique view of the city and surrounding countryside; the Saints Center for Culture and the Arts in Stuart, a former church that fell victim to an arsonist’s hate crime in 1995, but has since been made into an event venue after a $4 million restoration; The Country Life Center in Orient, birthplace farm of Henry A. Wallace, and part of the Wallace Centers of Iowa, dedicated to promoting local foods and sustainable agriculture through farm-to-table experiences; and Albert the Bull in Audubon, the “World’s Largest Bull,” standing 30 feet tall and paying tribute to Operation T-Bone and the state’s beef industry.
The Freedom Rock® generates a lot of tourist interest as well. The sixty-ton, twelve-foot-high boulder in rural Adair County has become a nationally recognized memorial tribute to veterans. First painted in 1999, the “original” Freedom Rock is repainted with a new mural for Memorial Day every year by artist Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II. Hundreds of thousands of people are said to travel to see the annual mural. A Freedom Rock tour has been established throughout the state, as additional Freedom Rocks have been commissioned, with the goal of one in each of Iowa’s 99 counties (63 have been painted to date, including rocks in the three other counties of Midwest Partnership).
Recreation is, of course, a big tourism draw, but it is also a vital component of quality of life for residents. In West Central Iowa, the rural landscape is made up of rolling hills and waterways that lend perfectly to scenic drives and designated byways (Western Skies Scenic Byway, Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway, and White Pole Road), as well as natural attractions and recreational activities. Remarkable sites include Whiterock Conservancy, fifty-five-hundred-acre non-profit land trust that features over thirty miles of mountain biking, hiking, horseback riding, and ATV trails; Raccoon River Valley Trail, an eighty-nine-mile paved trail with a seventy-two-mile loop that connects the Midwest Partnership region to the Des Moines area; Lake Panorama, which is Iowa’s largest private lake, features a resort, conference center, and 18-hole championship golf course; and Springbrook State Park, with amenities for camping, hiking, swimming, fishing, and hunting. The area’s biggest event is Guthrie’s River Ruckus, a two-day country music festival at the Guthrie County Fair Grounds in Guthrie Center, attracting more than sixteen thousand people to the area.
Midwest Partnership EDC works closely with the communities it serves to market the region as a great place to live, work, and play. Assisting in community development efforts that foster activity that results in job creation and retention, increased tax base, downtown revitalization, community pride, and improving quality of life keeps the region continuously growing and improving to be competitive.