SIOUX CITY -- In 2005, Woodbury County officials came up a plan they hoped would spur more business in rural areas.
They created a new agency, the Rural Economic Development Department, to act as cheerleader, lobbyist and advocate for less populated areas of the county.
Seven years -- and about $1.2 million -- later, the results are decidedly mixed. The county has formed a business loan fund, but no money has been dispersed. An organic farming program has stalled, and a plan to develop an industrial park south of Sioux City has hit road blocks, including from land owners who don't want to lose their rural way of life.
Anthon, Iowa, Mayor Alan Pithan said the agency has clearly had missteps. He questions the priorities.
"I don't think we are getting our money's worth out of that department," he said.
Department Executive Director Rob Marqusee acknowledges the uphill battle, but said there have been successes, such as a multi-million dollar grain elevator recently secured in the county.
Marqusee said the economic climate, changing demographics and other factors have complicated their mission. They're adjusting, he said.
"Rural development," he said, "is a very difficult thing."
Looking for opportunities
Rural Economic Development has an annual budget of $173,022 and two staff members, far smaller than most county agencies and even the Sioux City Economic Development Department. It is funded through a 1 percent sales tax applied to most purchases in the county.
From a sixth-floor office in the Woodbury County Courthouse, Marqusee and an assistant are charged with jumpstarting new investment in the roughly 822 square miles of county that sit outside Sioux City.
It's done through a mix of attracting new businesses, identifying possible tax breaks and helping with approvals.
They've had several large and small successes. The department in 2009 was critical in getting the county to change the zoning for a Bronson, Iowa, plot, allowing a manufacturer, Campus Lofts, to stay, said county Budget/Finance Manager Dennis Butler.
Butler also pointed to the $1 million business loan fund, created in July 2010, to help businesses finance projects.
"They are getting tools and starting to move," Butler said.
In that case, however, only a handful of people have signed up to get money. Butler said people have called to inquire, heard the specifics about the loan and didn't get back. He said he didn't know why none followed through.
Another early program, created in 2005, gave residents tax breaks if they grew organic crops. The county set aside $50,000, but only about $1,800 had been used by October 2010.
Pithan, the Anthon mayor, said he was in the initial meeting on the possibility of getting county farmers to come on board with organic planting. Only three farmers were there, Pithan said, and he immediately knew the initiative was "not practical" for how farmers want to handle their operations.
The lack of interest prompted Marqusee to shift the department's focus to commercial development in spring 2010. While farming is still important, Marqusee said last week, the agency is expanding its mission.
"We are just trying to do what we can for rural communities, by trying to encourage younger people to farm, which is not very successful," he said. "There are just fewer and fewer people living in rural communities, the demographics are getting older and it is just very difficult."
The department has given much of its energy in recent years to getting Liberty Industrial Park off the ground. The project is planned on a series of open fields east of Interstate 29 near Sioux City, Salix and Sergeant Bluff. County officials envision a teeming business hub filled with distribution centers and offices, most focusing on agriculture.
Under the plan, the county would install water, sewer and other utility lines, making the site ready for companies to build. An I-29 access ramp would also be relocated.
The development has faced continued opposition from land owners around the site. Many worry the project would eliminate open land and alter the highway exit.
A series of public meetings have been held, and the county has paid about $25,000 for a consultant. An additional $75,000 is needed for more research. Another public meeting is planned on March 12.
Marqusee said the pieces are in place and the results will be worth it. County officials have repeatedly said that Liberty Park will become a major economic engine.
"We've done the policy stuff that we need to do. I think Liberty is critical to overall rural development, by having food processers who can create supply chains with their local growers," he said. "But it is a long process, unfortunately, and patience isn't necessarily my strong suit."
Marqusee said he also continues to draw new investments, including the grain elevator in Anthon, Iowa. Work is also ongoing for new expo center in Moville, Iowa, he said.
Pithan said he appreciates Marqusee's role in the county landing the Anthon project through tax incentives. But he said the county expenditure on the department over seven years hasn't been defensible.
Correctionville, Iowa, Mayor Gerald Hyler also said Marqusee could do more to show support for projects, including a new grocery store in town. A town committee for two years has been working to secure a supermarket tenant, he said.
"I think he is serious about wanting to help," Hyler said, although more could be done.
Marqusee said the department will continue advocating for rural areas of the county, where there are countless investment opportunities. He said his goal is making the area thrive.
"I think we are doing as much as anyone can for rural communities as anyone could," he said.