SIOUX CITY -- Government leaders in Sioux City and Woodbury County need to play a more active role in luring a "mega site" to Northwest Iowa, the state's economic development director said this week.
Debi Durham warned that either Sioux City or Council Bluffs -- the two largest metropolitan areas in the western part of the state -- would eventually receive the large-scale certified industrial site the state is pushing. Whichever city prepares a site first will all-but-completely lock out the other from receiving a mega site of its own, Durham said, since the economic development agency envisions four geographically spaced sites across the state, with just one west of the Des Moines area.
"There's a will to do this (in Sioux City). I think the question is who's going to go about assembling that," Durham told The Journal editorial board last week. "Mayor (Bob Scott) and I have had many conversations about it. ... Then the county needs to be more active. The county talks about that."
Durham, a Sioux City resident who helmed the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce and The Siouxland Initiative before joining state government in 2011, said she felt Sioux City's current economic health made it a "prime type" for such a site, which requires at least 1,000 contiguous acres, readily available utility hookups and access to rail and other transportation.
Pointing to continued redevelopment in downtown Sioux City, the economic draw stemming from the former Gateway computer campus in North Sioux City and a concurrent Iowa Department of Transportation study examining area infrastructure, Durham called on municipal leaders to take action quickly.
"We should really seize these opportunities while they're here, and really think in a master overlay of how this could look totally different, from a transportation movement to land opportunities to all the other great things (Sioux City) is doing, like the riverfront," Durham said.
Keith Radig, chair of the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors, pushed back on the notion of the county being passive in its efforts. He said officials were working through county tax increment financing revenues in an effort to acquire a plot of land large enough for mega site status, and that economic development director David Gleiser was leading a "team effort" to prepare a site.
"It could be significant. We're not quite there yet," Radig said. "We've been working closed-door, behind-the-scenes with a lot of it. It's not really something you can make public."
Local leaders have struggled for years to assemble a large enough site and how to pay for it. Land-purchase options, which are estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $1 million, are another requirement of the mega site designation. Some officials have suggested tapping into a portion of the increased property taxes that the county will be receiving from the $2 billion expansion of CF Industries' fertilizer complex at Port Neal.
The area between Port Neal and Sioux City's Southbridge business park, just south of Sioux Gateway Airport, has been eyed as the most logical place for a mega site.
In the aftermath of CF announcing its expansion in 2012, local leaders worked to establish the state's first certified mega site. But that distinction recently was achieved instead by Cedar Rapids. The eastern Iowa city's Big Cedar Industrial Center, which covers 1,300 acres, was the only Iowa location that met the requirements when Toyota and Mazda were considering U.S. sites for a new $1.6 billion auto plant last year. Huntsville, Alabama won the competition for the plant and its 4,000 jobs.
For her part, Durham allowed that Iowa can take a more active role in preparing and building mega sites, because they require significant resources and energy to prepare. Nevertheless, she exhorted political leaders to prioritize the mega site and follow an existing blueprint so Sioux City can see the rewards of the development.
"Everyone agrees in concept that it needs to happen. There hasn't been assigned a point person that's going to wake up every single day to think" about this," Durham said. "If we really want to be development ready, that's what you need here."