OTTUMWA — Starting a business might begin with a great idea, but success takes a lot of work. Thursday, some of those motivated and creative people were reminded how important they are to the economy of southern Iowa.
“[For] economic development, chasing smokestacks” is not a wise way to bring jobs to a community, said internationally known author Richard C. Longworth.
Longworth wrote “Caught in the Middle,” a book about how globalization affects businesses in the rural Midwest. He was the keynote speaker Thursday at the Second Annual Vision Awards, designed to honor entrepreneurship throughout southern Iowa. He said the state of Iowa recently gave the equivalent of $35 million to a fertilizer company to come to Iowa. That, said Longworth, is on the heels of giving a different fertilizer company an incentive package worth $50 million to move their operation to Iowa.
Yes, said Longworth, that may bring some jobs. But jobs that could very quickly disappear.
“Any company that can be bribed to move to Iowa for $35 million, they can be bribed to leave Iowa,” he said. “A better idea is to grow your own companies. I can’t help but think that $85 million total could have helped start a lot of businesses.”
Leaders with the Ottumwa Economic Development Association, which co-hosted the event with the Regional Economic Advancement Department at Indian Hills Community College, have offered similar opinions in the past: That most new jobs in southeast Iowa are going to come from existing businesses expanding or from businesses started locally.
That’s one of the reasons judges liked the way Entrepreneurial Educator of the Year Holly Berndt of Wayne Community Schools works with students. They need to know early that ideas and effort can benefit both them and their community.
Most of the Vision Award winners embodied that spirit, from high school senior and Student Entrepreneur of the Year Mitch Goudy of Fairfield, who owns MTG DJ Services, LLC, to Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Josh Bear, who took his Indian Hills Community College automotive degree and turned it into an auto repair business called Kar Knuts.
Even larger companies, like Cambridge Investment Research, Inc. in Fairfield, which helps thousands of small businesses across the country, started years ago with two employees. Maintaining an atmosphere supportive of an entrepreneur’s mindset for all employees was one of the reasons judges gave for naming it the Vision Awards “Business of the Year.”
The pattern displayed by all the entrepreneurial winners actually seemed nicely summarized in the motto of one of them: “We make it happen.”
That’s the slogan Musco Lighting has used for years, and it was part of the attitude that earned a Lifetime Achievement Vision Award for owner Joe Crookham of Mahaska County. But there was another common thread, both in the descriptions of the Vision Award winners and in the author’s speech.
The discussions seemed to center not on what they did in the past or even what they’re doing now, but on what comes next.
The owner of The Little Bake Shop, Melissa Little, won New Business of the Year. She started the business in her kitchen and wondered whether she could create a viable business. With the support of a core group of employees, she did. The new shop already had to move to larger quarters in downtown Ottumwa. Even when it comes to the city, she’s thinking of the future.
“People look at downtown and remember how things used to be,” Little said. “I look and see what it could be.”