New commissioner Westra details priorities for economic development

April 10, 2019

Steve Westra might have landed his dream job.

Three months after Gov. Kristi Noem appointed him commissioner of the Governor’s Office Economic Development, the Sioux Falls business leader and former state legislator is raving about the role.

“It’s everything I love: I love economic development, development in general and politics, and I really do love Gov. Noem’s vision and the fact that she wants to be the governor for the next generation,” Westra said.

Westra previously was chief operating officer of Hegg Cos. Inc. He served in the South Dakota House of Representatives from 2013 to 2016.

In the Noem administration, he’s also one of four members of the governor’s executive team.

“It’s been a whirlwind of getting everything in place,” he said. “We’ve really streamlined it when it comes to economic development, and we have been evaluating everything.”

That includes the industries strategically targeted by the state for economic development.

Westra is especially enthusiastic about companies that need workers related to cybersecurity given the premier program and graduates of Dakota State University.

“We believe there’s a lot of potential in South Dakota with that,” he said. “We have an obligation to make sure those students are staying in South Dakota. There’s no reason we should be exporting that talent.”

Bioscience will continue to be an area of focus but with a newly honed approach, he said.

Agriculture also will be key, including opportunities to grow precision agriculture operations in the state. That includes addressing issues with broadband that curtail access in parts of the state, he added.

“Ag is not where we want it to be. The rest of the economy is lifting the state up, but that’s why we talk about precision ag and the opportunities we see going forward to do more for the ag community. I think we have to do a deeper dive into what ag looks like for the next generation.”

Westra is the third consecutive GOED commissioner to be based in Sioux Falls, following Pat Costello, who now is vice president of Schoeneman Building Materials, and Scott Stern, who now is president of his family business, Stern Oil Co.

And while the new commissioner already is in regular contact with the Sioux Falls Development Foundation, thanks to a robust pipeline of potential deals, he is effusive in his praise for the activity on the west side of the state.

The recent announcement that Ellsworth Air Force Base was chosen for the first B-21 bomber unit is a significant achievement for the region, he said.

“If you look on the west side of the state, there are a lot of good things going on.”

The virtual “front door” to GOED also received an immediate update. The website, sdreadytopartner.com, was updated with a new look, testimonials and an interactive finance incentive tool that allows easy access to programs available in the state.

And speaking of incentive programs: Those are up for review too.

“It goes back to re-evaluating how we’ve done business over the last decade,” Westra said. “We really need to make sure our programs don’t become stale, and if they have, we need to understand why and what we can do to reactivate that energy level.”

When Noem announced his appointment, she clearly signaled she wanted to see change in the office Westra would lead.

“South Dakota does a lot of things right, but our economy needs a renewed focus,” she said, crediting Westra’s “real-world experience in the private sector” as a benefit in his new role.

“Steve has helped create and grow businesses; he knows what it takes and the challenges that must be overcome. Most importantly, Steve is a servant for people, and I know he’ll work hard to produce results that kick-start our economy and bolster our industries and businesses, families and communities.”

When the governor said“kick-start,” she’s serious, he added.

“She moves at the speed of lightning. She’s a decision-maker, and she’s a doer, and she wants to make sure we’re creating opportunities in South Dakota for the next generation,” he said. “I’ve made it clear to my team: Get comfortable being uncomfortable because we’re going to approach everything different.”

New commissioner Westra details priorities for economic development

“We have been evaluating everything.” Three months into the job, the state’s new head of economic development talks priorities.

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