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By Jodi Schwan
I’m probably about six months late in writing this one; but the subject forgave me, so hopefully you will too.
Scott Stern took over for Pat Costello as commissioner of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development last September.
I’m a little embarrassed to say this is the first I’ve interviewed him. Fortunately, though, that gave us plenty to talk about.
“How’s the pipeline?” I asked, starting with my favorite question for most people in economic development.
“We’re very upbeat,” Stern said. “We’ve got a lot of projects in place, and not just pie-in-the-sky stuff. Things we’re really excited about, which bears out in Sioux Falls.”
He, like others I’ve talked to, witnessed a lift in activity after last fall’s election that seems to be continuing.
It’s always tricky to write about projects that might come to fruition, but I’m going to hint at some things just to give you a sense of the level of activity Stern and others are experiencing.
Watch the bioscience industry, for instance.
“There is a lot of energy and initiative around bioscience – research, chemistry, biology – and it can be leveraged into ag and into human health improvements, and there’s cross-collaboration opportunity we’re seeing,” Stern said. “Because of how we’re positioned with ag capability and health care, it creates an intersection of bioscience capacity we’re very excited about in the state. And it translates to Sioux Falls.”
Then there’s the USD Discovery District. This project somewhat quietly has gained momentum. Companies are starting to commit to space. There are prospects that are sounding pretty exciting.
“If we can get (one we’re working on), it’s a game changer,” Stern said. “For the quantity of people they would bring to the state and the mental capacity they would require. It’s a very high-tech bioscience program that would be supported by the ag industry, and we’re very excited about that.”
And then there’s Foundation Park. I really want to talk more about Foundation Park, and hopefully we can soon. I know I’m inherently wired to be optimistic, but I have been telling people for a while to be patient with this one, and it might be about to pay off. The types of businesses being recruited for this massive industrial park can take years to make commitments and are subject to a full range of variables influencing their projects.
The announcement last week that area banks have joined together to make $16 million in financing available for infrastructure should give you a clue that there’s solid interest in this property.
“These things take a long time. They take a lot of partners to make happen,” Stern added. “The Development Foundation is working very aggressively, and the state is supporting those initiatives. We’re very excited, because what Foundation Park gives the state when we interact with site selectors and companies (is) a halo effect. If that site is conducive to what they want to do, we have it in our portfolio.”
I was glad, too, to hear that Stern shares a philosophy of his predecessors that the majority of his department’s time should be spent retaining and supporting the growth of existing businesses. These are typically our best prospects for economic growth.
He also anticipates making adjustments to programs designed to support workforce recruitment for new businesses so that existing businesses could tap them for high-need employees.
And of course, because economic development and workforce development are inextricably linked, I asked about the next iteration of the state’s “You can live in South Dakota” campaign.
If you’ll remember, this is the campaign that kicked off with the highly publicized approach comparing life in South Dakota to life on Mars.
While that succeeded in getting a lot of attention, Stern said the approach now is more niched and involves creating profiles of the types of workers area businesses need.
“What are their needs and wants and hobbies,” he explained. “We have tools to do that and we will use social media to reach out to them proactively around the U.S. and follow that up — actually make a phone call to recruit them to the state. We identify the profile that would have the most likely capacity to move here and be relocated.”
There’s reason to be optimistic about addressing the shortage, though.
The state’s non-farm workforce grew by 9,000 people in the first two months of the year, Stern said.
“So we’re growing it. We’re just not growing it fast enough. But we are getting people to move here.”
“We’re very upbeat,” commissioner Scott Stern said. “We’ve got a lot of projects in place, and not just pie-in-the-sky stuff. Things we’re really excited about, which bears out in Sioux Falls.”